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US Brookings rankings: A focus on economic “value-added”

A new report by the Brookings Institution captures the “actual contribution” American colleges make to their graduates’ eventual economic success. Using a mixture of public and private data (the latter from LinkedIn and Payscale, a company that provides information on job market compensation,) the Brookings rankings provide a picture of the (economic) “value-added” by a college education. 
What “value-added” comes down to, is the difference between the actual mid-career salary of alumni and an estimation of what similar graduates would be earning at a comparable institution. For the baseline measures, the rankings take into account factors such as student demographics and the types of courses offered at each school. The “expected” outcomes (based partly on these baseline measures) are then compared to the actual performance of graduates, as measured by mid-career earnings levels, the value of job skills, and ability to repay student loans. In this way, the Brookings rankings “attempt to isolate the effect colleges themselves have on graduates’ economic outcomes, above and beyond what students’ backgrounds would predict.” 
Brookings says these “value-added” measures “fill a demand for greater transparency and accountability in higher education.” Students and their families, they say, need to be better informed of the likely returns on the huge investment that college represents. The developers also pride themselves in acknowledging the value of many community colleges and lesser-known institutions that are typically left out of conventional rankings. “We thought it would be much better to have a value-added system than one that rewards elite colleges for attracting the most-prepared students," said Jonathan Rothwell, the lead author and a fellow in Brookings's Metropolitan Policy Program.
Far from being perfect, the Brookings rankings have a number of flaws, not the least of which is the questionable reliability of its private sources, LinkedIn and PayScale. But perhaps the biggest criticism they are getting has to do with their focus on money as the one and only measure of alumni success. This “corporate” worldview of education leaves much to be desired, and will certainly anger many. But these rankings are undeniably useful –at least in principle - for those interested in finding out more about the financial soundness of their investment in an American higher education institution.