Over the years, I've crossed paths with thousands of parents, and this is what most of them would love to find: a list of the perfect colleges for their teenagers.
No such lists exist, but that doesn't stop ambitious players in the higher-ed niche from trying to create them.
Money magazine is the latest entrant to jump into the college rankings business with the goal of helping families pinpoint that ideal school.
Inside the newest college rankings
Money's list depends on some of the same metrics as U.S. News & World Report's controversial rankings, but it differs in significant ways from the entrenched rankings leader. U.S. News relies heavily on a school's reputation, which helps explain why the Ivies and some the nation's oldest and wealthiest institutions remain the alpha dogs.
Unlike U.S. News, Money looks at early- and mid-career salaries of grads when evaluating whether schools are turning out well-prepared students for the real world. For salary figures, Money depends upon PayScale, which is a popular source of self-reported salary figures from employees across the country.
Money adjusts the PayScale figures based on what students at a school would be expected to earn given the mix of majors at the institution. This prevents the nation's engineering schools from hogging all the top spots.
Money attempts to get a handle on education quality even though at this point there's no real way to measure it. As proxies, Money looks at such factors as a school's graduation rate, its grad rate compared to the type of student body it educates, its RateMyProfessors.com ratings and students' perception of quality, which is measured by each institution's admission yield.
I think that last measure is dubious at best. U.S. News rightfully gets flack for relying so heavily on what institutions think of each other in ranking schools. And I wonder who seriously believes that 17- and 18-year-olds can assess educational quality!
Money also takes aim at affordability by looking at the average net price of a degree, rather than the sticker price, which most students don't pay. Its new ranking system also looks at the typical debt a student takes on and loan default risk. Shamefully, U.S. News does not penalize schools for producing graduating classes with scary debt.
How to use college rankings responsibly
You shouldn't think the numbers themselves mean much in isolation. Don't assume that the No. 1 school -- which happens to be Babson College, a business school in Massachusetts -- is better than No. 20 (Rice University) or No. 53 (James Madison University) or the schools tied at No. 107. That last ranking is where you'll find University of Wyoming, Johns Hopkins University, University of Mary Washington, Stony Brook University, Rutgers University-Newark, Utah State University and College of Our Lady of the Elms.
As with all college rankings, Money's can be a valuable resource to generate ideas for appropriate schools. Beyond the best-known research universities, most families haven't heard of the vast majority of the nation' 2,300 or so four-year colleges and universities. Use rankings as a starting point in a search, not to make the final decisions.
A niece and nephew of mine both picked colleges that happened to make Money's new list of the 25 most affordable private colleges. My nephew Matt will be starting his junior year at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. (No. 11 on the affordable list), where the cost is doable with help from his financial aid package. I wrote a post about the pricing of his college and others for my other college blog last fall: Looking for Great College Bargains.
In contrast, Matt's sister started out at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., but the aid was inadequate. Worried about her growing college debt, my niece reluctantly left the school in 2012, moved back in with her parents and transferred to a state university in Missouri. Because of the transfer, she'll have to stay an additional semester in school, which will add to her bill and debt. I think she would be surprised to see that Rockhurst is No. 8 on Money's best value college list.
What happens next
No one knows at this point whether Money's college rankings will take off. U.S. News has about a 30-year head start. I just hope that Money's new ranking system doesn't prompt colleges to explore ways to game the system like institutions have done with U.S. News' rankings. When that happens, it's always the students and their parents who get hurt.