Pond Scum
Pond Scum photo by Max F. Williams

Happiest Freshmen?!”  OK, time to get in on the action – lets start a new ranking!   First, we’ll need some data.  That’s an easy one – most institutions post their “Common Data Set” on line, and that’s a really great source.   It has data on admissions, retention, enrollments, degrees, race, gender, you name it.  This is what institutions send to publishers of other admissions guidebooks and rankings – why don’t we get in on the free data?  The top three places to find them on an institution’s website are probably the Undergraduate Admissions, Institutional Research, or About areas.

Or we can go to publicly available sources, such as the U.S. government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Science Foundation’s “WebCASPAR,” and others.   The advantage of that is that we can download data by institution en masse.   Also, no one can claim that the data misrepresents them – hey, they provided it to the agency, right?  So what if the data are a little outdated.  We’re not building a rocket, just a racket.

Or we could send each institution a questionnaire.  Not exactly sure what to ask for or how?  Don’t worry, those folks are experts, we’ll just send a general question and they’ll call other folks on their campus, hold meetings, and jump through all kinds of hoops to be helpful, and eventually send us something that we can then decide if we want to use.  The kids at Yale have been doing this for years with their “Insider’s Guide.”  Well, off and on for years (when they think of it).

Maybe we could start a web site, and ask people to come enter data about the institutions they attend, or attended in the past, and then use that information for each institution.  That’s what RateMyProfessor.com did, and they got covered by CBSMoneyWatch,  and others!   True, I spotted at least three Swarthmore instructors who have not been with us for some time among those ranked, and a few others I never heard of (with 175 regular faculty members, how could I possibly have heard of everyone) but that’s the beauty of it, right?  Low maintenance!  And PayScale.com has become a force to be reckoned with.  Sure, their “average income” data for Swarthmore only represents about 2% of the alumni (estimating generously), but nobody bothers to dig that deep.  It doesn’t stop well-known publications like Forbes from using it.

OK, so that’s where we can get data for our ranking, now what data should we use, and what shall we call it?   We can take a lesson from the Huffington Post story about the “Happiest Freshmen.”   Now that’s clever!  And I’ll bet it generated a ton of visits, because it sure got attention from a lot of people.  The only data used in that ranking was retention rates – brilliant!  One number, available anywhere, call it something catchy (or better yet, controversial) and let ‘er rip!  (Shhh..  as far as I can tell, it was the press that provided the label – the folks crunching the data didn’t even have to think of it!)

I propose that we pull zip codes from NCES, sort in descending order, and do a press release about the “Zippiest institutions ever!”  No that’s no good – if it’s not something that changes every year, how will we make money from new rankings?!    Any ideas?

Published by

Robin Huntington Shores

Currently the Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Swarthmore College, Robin has worked in Institutional Research for over 20 years at a range of institutions.