So I Guess I Work for One of the Top 100 Universities in the Country

When I turned in my spring grades in May, I worked at the country’s 451st best university. But when I return from sabbatical next year, I’ll be teaching courses at the country’s 82nd best university.

Bethel University: Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall
The Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall at Bethel University

No, I’m not changing jobs. But Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota jumped all the way into the top 100 in the most recent college rankings from Money magazine, nestling into the lofty space separating Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago (where Bethel Seminary was once the Swedish department of the divinity school). By Money‘s methodology, Bethel is the second-highest rated member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — just behind #75 Wheaton and well ahead of CCCU stalwarts like #147 Messiah and #224 Calvin. Even more shockingly, we’re now over 100 places ahead of Minnesota’s two most renowned private colleges: #215 Macalester and #216 Carleton.

Predictably, Bethel trumpeted this news, and I was one of many employees and alumni who shared the story on Facebook. But having spilled no small supply of virtual ink ridiculing college rankings early in the life of this blog, it felt rather hypocritical to celebrate this result.

After all, it’s an aberration. While, by any measure, Bethel is one of the top 20% of the country’s thousands of institutions of higher learning, all other systems place it much further back in the pack. To illustrate, let’s place Bethel next to the top three schools in its U.S. News category (Midwestern Regional Universities) and see how the four institutions do in Money and the systems for two other magazines, Forbes and Washington Monthly.

U.S. News (Midwestern Regional Universities)

Washington Monthly (Master’s Universities)























So what’s going on? Different systems reflect different values and priorities, and those variations tend to become clearer as you get past the top 25-50 of any list.

While U.S. News continues to determine 22.5% of each school’s score according to “academic reputation” (determined by surveys of academic leaders and high school guidance counselors, the former available for view only if you pay the premium rate), that’s not a factor in the other three systems. Likewise, U.S. News continues to give some weight to colleges’ selectivity and incoming students’ SAT/ACT scores, while its competitors focus more on what institutions do with the students they have. So not only does Bethel struggle to change fixed assumptions about its relative quality, but (for better and worse) it’s hard to imagine any school jumping so many spots in a single year.

Forbes 2015 Top Colleges logo
The other thing to consider here is that Forbes, Washington Monthly, and U.S. News haven’t yet published their 2016 rankings…

If you don’t like the U.S. News approach (and you shouldn’t), you’ve got some alternatives.

Forbes is single-mindedly concerned with “return on investment” (ROI), and so considers factors like alumni salary (10%) and student loan default rate (12.5%). But even if that’s a good way of measuring “value,” Forbes also defines student success in a very Forbes-like way: 22.5% of the rating is based on the number of alumni placed on the Center for College Affordability and Productivity‘s “American Leaders List.”

Washington Monthly has a particularly distinctive approach, one to which I’ve offered qualified praise before. It focuses on whether an institution produces social mobility (e.g., by including Pell Grant numbers and comparing actual graduation rates to what would be expected based on the type of students admitted), research (institutional spending on it, but also based on how many undergraduate alumni go on to receive doctorates), and service (as measured by student/alumni participation in the ROTC and Peace Corps, plus community service rates).

So I can’t ignore the fact that Bethel continues to lag behind in that system. While we don’t do all that badly on any single measure (save research spending), we don’t excel at anything — certainly not enough to justify what’s still a high net cost (over $25,000) for a category that includes lots of competitors being subsidized by taxpayers, or by donors with much deeper pockets than Bethel’s.

PayScale logoBut I’m also not prepared to simply dismiss what Money found. It’s using one of the more sophisticated methodologies I’ve seen, balancing Forbes’ emphasis on affordability and earnings and Washington Monthly‘s focus on lower-income students and generating meaningful work and service. For example, Money gives significant weight to alumni salary data. But not only does it draw this data from multiple sources, it (a) contextualizes it (e.g., by adjusting for the academic and economic backgrounds of incoming students, so that a school isn’t rewarded for simply recruiting high achievers and/or those from especially privileged backgrounds) and (b) nuances it (e.g., by also considering the marketability of skills most often reported by alumni in LinkedIn). That’s one of the reasons that higher ed reformer Jeffrey Selingo has praised it: “Money tries to crack the code on answering the ROI question, and of all the rankings out there, comes the closest.”

Most notably, 20% of the “Outcomes” third of the points come from alumni responses to a question: “Does your work make the world a better place?”

When I first reviewed the Money rankings, in 2014, I wondered why it didn’t use this data. Well, according to Money‘s Kaitlin Mulhere, adding it is the single biggest change in their methodology, and does the most to help explain how Bethel and others on their “most improved” list jumped so many spots from one year to the next:

Where Bethel stands out the most in MONEY’s analysis, though, is job meaning. Sixty-eight percent of graduates said their job made the world a better place, the 11th-highest job meaning score of all the colleges in our rankings.

Like [VP for academic affairs Sean] O’Connell at Albertus Magnus [College, in New Haven, CT], [Bethel VP/dean Deb] Sullivan-Trainor thinks a big reason is the type of student who enrolls at Bethel. One of the college’s values is to prepare students to be “world changers,” so there’s a lot of emphasis on helping them figure out how they can make difference, she says. Plus, they are taught to think about their work as part of worshiping God, no matter what it is. “That underlying value and perspective makes a difference,” she says.

When I first wrote about this data in 2013, I noted that religious colleges could be expected to do well on this count. As Deb hinted, such schools give alumni spiritual resources with which to make meaning of their work and to relate it to their calling. Two other CCCU institutions, both in Indiana, are among the ten most improved: Bethel College, from #625 to #274; and Huntington University, from #668 to #341. So are Nebraska Wesleyan and Earlham College, a Quaker school (also in Indiana – what’s in the water?) that jumped into the top 30 on the strength of the 2nd highest job meaning score in the pool.

Carpenter Hall, Earlham College
Carpenter Hall at Earlham College in Richmond, IN – Wikimedia

Money didn’t produce a list of the 10 schools that dropped the most because of the changes in methodology (it also added more data on student loan repayment and considered the salaries of students with federal loans), and its 2015 rankings are no longer available.

But Selingo’s article listed last year’s Top 25. Most continued to rank near the top again in 2016, with Michigan (+16 spots), BYU (+10), Rice (+10), and Yale (+9) among those benefiting most from the revised methodology. But ten dropped out of the Top 25, including Duke (from #21 to #39), Penn (from #14 to #26), and Dartmouth (from #21 to #33). One even fell below Bethel: Babson College, whose eye-raising #2 rating in 2015 gave way to a #109 finish this year — no doubt in part because only 30% of its alumni told PayScale that their work helps to “make the world a better place.”

Now, even if you agree with me that there are problems with the “job meaning” measure, don’t disregard Bethel’s jump into the top 100. After all, job meaning still accounts for only one-fifteenth of the Money score; Bethel also does well with its retention and graduation rates (especially when adjusted for the non-selective pool of students being educated), its alumni rarely default on their loans, and it has worked to improve academic advising and career counseling.

And frankly, I’m sympathetic to anything that helps turn the spotlight on colleges and universities that — for reasons having little to do with quality — struggle to get attention beyond their regional or missional niches. Perhaps then I won’t have to deal with as many comments like the one from the retired historian who wrote at Anxious Bench that I had no “standing” to weigh in on important debates because I work at “such an unknown university, Bethel…”

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