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What’s the best four-year college in Illinois? It depends.

Chicago Tribune

Monday, September 18, 2023  |  Editorial  |  EDITORIAL BOARD

What’s the best four-year college in Illinois? Not the University of Chicago, Northwestern University or the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

No, the best college in the state is the Illinois Institute of Technology, of course!

Hats off to IIT for scoring higher than any other school across the state in The Wall Street Journal’s latest college rankings.

This private, Chicago-based institution, which rebranded itself as Illinois Tech some years ago, also made it into the top 25 of schools nationally. It outpaced not only its local rivals but also the Ivy League’s Cornell University and Brown University, as well as other perennial winners in the rankings game such as Washington University in St. Louis.

The reason for the school’s success is a dramatic change in the Journal’s ranking methodology, aiming to reflect what really matters when students choose an institution. The change puts a greater emphasis on the value added by each college, giving a ton of weight to graduation rates and any extra earning potential that goes along with a school’s degrees. Illinois Tech’s emphasis on such high-paying fields as computer science and engineering no doubt helps it there.

The reputation and wealth of a school isn’t considered in the Journal’s ranking. It scraps the usual survey of academics about who they think belongs on top, along with points usually given for spending the most money per student on instruction. By focusing on graduation rates and the salaries of graduates, the Journal said it is seeking to highlight schools “doing great things for students who would otherwise struggle,” versus those doing less for students set up to succeed in life no matter what school they attend.

As a result, some colleges ended well below their typical rankings and others skyrocketed — especially those that, as the Journal bluntly puts it, do the most to help students graduate and go on to “make more money.”

We’re sure as heck not sold on the idea that the purpose of higher education boils down to fattening paychecks. But there’s no question the Journal is tapping into a timely concern.

The cost of college has soared year after year, rising far beyond the inflation rate. That has led many Americans to question whether a degree is worth the high price. A Journal survey earlier this year showed that 56% of adults think earning a four-year degree is a bad bet, with the most skepticism among people ages 18-to-34, the main target market for these colleges.

Among college graduates surveyed, 42% said getting a degree wasn’t worth it, up sharply from a decade ago. No doubt the nation’s $1.7 trillion student-debt burden is a big factor, and the steep cost also contributes to a miserable 60% graduation rate at four-year colleges overall. Some schools made themselves even less popular by charging full tuition and fees for online classes during the pandemic, padding their staffs with needless administrators and associate deans, and by allowing intolerance for more conservative points of view to flourish on campuses.

The consequence is declining enrollment, especially among men, and flagging public support for the student-loan forgiveness schemes that President Joe Biden has pushed. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the U.S. can remain competitive if the population is undereducated compared to other countries.

We know of no grand solution, except trust in the marketplace to set prices that ultimately reflect the value of the service being sold. One reason Illinois Tech did so well in the Journal survey is its relatively low cost for a private institution, averaging $22,166 a year after scholarships and other discounts — which, by the way, still sounds like a lot of money to us.

The Journal’s change in methodology also highlights one of the problems with the benchmark U.S. News and World Report ranking, which more closely mirrors long-held perceptions and lists the University of Chicago at No. 6 nationally, Northwestern at No. 10, U. of I.’s flagship campus at No. 41 and Illinois Tech way down at No. 127.

Critics say U.S. News rewards prestige over educational quality, and the past year or two has witnessed a revolt, as several prestigious law and medical schools declared they would no longer participate. Among those was the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, which complained (in coded jargon) that the U.S. News formula perpetuates elitism and overemphasizes the grades and test scores of admitted applicants, as if it does not do the same when it so chooses.

Still, don’t expect big-name schools griping about U.S. News to suddenly fall in love with the Journal’s methodology, which pushed so many expensive schools down below other colleges they’ve long considered inferior.

The reality is that colleges dislike rankings because they cannot control them. They naturally prefer to judge themselves and they criticize practically any external judgment about the performance of American higher education as inadequate — except when there’s a cheap public relations point to be scored. Illinois Tech, unsurprisingly, swiftly published a news release to celebrate its lofty position in the Journal’s report.

Of course, the Journal and U.S. News are not alone in ranking colleges. There’s Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, plus a bunch of others. As far as we’re concerned, the more independent rankings out there the better for the prospective customers.

We see value in practically any factual evaluation with clear methodology. A college education has become a risky, high-stakes investment. These rankings are more likely to assist whiplashed high school seniors in finding a good fit they can afford. They are far more use than the flashy commercials and the platoons of recruiters the colleges deploy to reel in the next class of paying customers.

By the way, seniors and parents, we just published some good, independent advice on how to write your college essay. We’re working on advice on how to make the money you’ll need to go.