Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing some of the less appreciated colleges appear at the top of a Forbes list of best colleges…but… the methodology they employ in establishing the rankings is as questionable as The US News and World Report list, or any of the other rankings.
When I worked with the editorial board at Houghton Mifflin I found that their data base – the Guidance Information System – was great at organizing some kinds of information and absolutely useless in determining the relative value of one educational experience over another. The same holds true for the Forbes model, which attempts to avoid subjectivity by using the amount of debt incurred by the average student and the popularity of teaching faculty as reflected in websites that rate professors.
I’ve got no problem with seeing Williams and Princeton at the top of the poll, and I continue to get a kick out of seeing Whitman and Kenyon bubble up in the first ranks, but it is hard to think of Brown as 45th best and Cornell 70th. My own fondness for Lewis and Clark (#232) led me to look at their case specifically.
The Forbes method allocates about 20% of the final score from favorable entries left at ratemyprofessors.com. Lewis and Clark is a small college in which professors are greatly admired, but students happen not to zip off comments to ratemyprofessors.com, and so lose ground in the Forbes sweepstakes.
Similarly, about 20% of the score is attached to the degree of indebtedness with which graduates leave the institution. Obviously, the service academies (no tuition charge) get a major bounce in the rankings as a result. Lewis and Clark isn’t inexpensive, and that too drives score down.
All in all, the Forbes ranking opens up interesting cases for discussion but doesn’t offer much in the way of meaningful evaluation.