Dr. Mark Evans wrote an opinion piece following an article featured in the Bakersfield Californian titled "Among the Debatable Best" Take a look at the article below!
Recently, The Economist released its first-ever ranking of American four-year colleges. The Californian reported the wonderful news that CSU Bakersfield was ranked No. 10 nationally by quoting a guy from Oregon who called the ranking “strange,” by noting “CSUB doesn’t even make the top 80 in the highly regarded U.S. News and World Report college ranking,” and by titling the article, “Among the Debatable Best.”
First, let’s note that the University of Oregon’s rank was 394, while Oregon State University’s rank was 751. Ouch! I’m sure that had nothing to do with the editor of The Oregonian calling the ranking “strange.” Second, it should be noted that since US News & World Report couldn’t survive by providing U.S. news and world reports, its revenue stream comes from publishing college rankings.
On the other hand, The Economist is a London-based publication with an audience including the world’s most influential executives and policy makers and a mission that reads, “Published since September 1843 to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” The Economist’s ranking is mission-driven, i.e., it is a research-based economic news item to compare the value added of institutions of higher learning.
Let’s assume your son (or daughter) goes to Harvard, graduates, and goes on to earn a very comfortable salary. It’s easy to measure the debt you now owe, but how do you measure what he truly got from Harvard?
Furthermore, to what extent is Harvard’s value added, if any, rooted in providing your son with more human capital (more learning from better teaching) and to what extent did Harvard provide him more social capital (i.e., “connections” that he would not have developed elsewhere)?
Alternatively, assume you are “going nowhere fast” and are being bombarded by for-profit colleges, several with annual advertising budgets approaching $100 million. The cost? No problem, they say. “We can line up the loans.” While the Pew Research Center estimates college graduates aged 25-32 earn 63 percent more than those with solely a high school diploma, this is an average of widely dispersed outcomes. Bad decisions are financially ruinous.
These are the types of decisions The Economist seeks to inform with its rankings. The study estimates an equation predicting average earnings from various causal factors, calculates the differential between predicted and actual median earnings for all colleges; and ranks them accordingly.
Every causal variable was significant at the 1 percent level and the causal variables together explained a remarkable 85 percent of the variation in salaries. As one would expect, ability level (SAT scores) and academic field of study had the largest influences.
It was found that CSUB graduates on average earn $11,143 more per year than students with the same characteristics pursuing similar majors but attending other colleges — 30 percent more! This was the 10th largest salary differential of the 1,275 four-year colleges included in the study.
This implies an especially large rate of return, since costs of attending CSUB are among the lowest in the nation. For example, while Harvard ranked No. 4 with an earnings differential exceeding CSUB’s by around $2,000, the incremental cost of attending Harvard for four years would dwarf this modest incremental benefit.
Why is the outcome so impressive? For two reasons. First, the commitment of CSUB’s faculty greatly exceeds the national average. This plays out most significantly in policies that have long required direct reinforcement of basic skills, especially in general education courses with large enrollments.
Second, a “top 10” ranking would not occur without local economic opportunities to make it happen. Increasingly, synergies between employers, alumni, and academic departments are resembling networking phenomena at a college such as Harvard, although obviously on a smaller scale. For example, the Aera Energy Concentration in Occupational Safety and Health Management was developed because local employers had to recruit out of state and were having difficulty retaining the “imports.”
The relationship between university and community is broadening — witness CSUB’s new engineering programs.
Good things are happening here. It feels pretty cool to those of us “in the trenches” when a publication with the stature of The Economist empirically discovers it and tells the world.
Mark Evans is department chairman and Professor of Economics at CSU Bakersfield.