Friday, April 10, 2015

Moving from Rankings to Knowledge: Understanding colleges on multiple dimensions

(Updated on 5/11/2015 with new graphs and matching text.)

Choosing a college is a difficult decision. In addition to college visits, college website visits, and experiences of friends and relatives, eager students and parents can look at US News, The Princeton Review, Niche, Forbes, or many others to learn which schools have the best rank.

Rankings are great for a quick impression: Harvard University is #1, Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi is #604. But they aren’t great for giving context. The reader can then drill into each school and piece out the differences, but it’s difficult to mentally compare multiple schools, along multiple indicators.

This is where graphs provide value. See the graph below of Georgia colleges and universities. We can quickly see that Emory, Georgia Tech, and UGA (Georgia) are the top schools in the state in terms of test scores and graduation rates. By graphing an input (test scores) versus an output (graduation rate) we can also see which colleges are over-performing or under-performing. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has a graduation rate of 68%, which is much higher than other schools with similar test scores, such as Kennesaw State, with a graduation rate of 43%.

However, we shouldn't declare that all schools above the trend line are better than schools below. Consider UGA and Georgia Tech. UGA’s graduation rate is higher than Tech’s even though its average incoming SAT score is over 100 points lower. At first we might assume UGA provides more supports to get students to graduation. But as an Atlanta resident with GA Tech co-workers I often hear that Tech is very rigorous. Rigor could lower their graduation rate, but improve outcomes for the students who do graduate. This is backed by evidence. In 2011, 84% of Tech freshmen reported studying at least 11 hours per week, compared to 70% of UGA freshmen. reports that the average Georgia Tech grad earns a starting salary of $60,700, while UGA grads earn $43,800.

Schools are color-coded by the percentage of students attending who receive Pell Grants. Schools in the upper right, with high test scores and graduation rates, admit far less low-income students. However, after controlling for test scores, there is little relationship between a school's poverty level and the trend line in Georgia. SCAD has a lower Pell Grant rate than Kennesaw State, consistent with its higher graduation rate, but Georgia State has a higher Pell Grant rate than either school and is slightly above the trend line.

To learn more about schools relevant to you, use the graph below. Notice the graph has filters on the right for state, and enrollment, and can display SAT or ACT scores. Also, hover over a school for a link to drill-down information, or hover over the top left for zoom tools.

Source data is from IPEDS, a series of school-level surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Data used are the most recent available (as of March 2015) and reflect the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, depending on the data point. Graduation and test score data is from the 2012-2013 school year. More detail here. Source data available here. Schools either not submitting IPEDS data or not classified as "Degree-granting, primarily baccalaureate or above" are not included.

IPEDS graduation rates do not account for students who graduate after transferring. This report shows the national graduation rate rises by nine percentage points after accounting for graduation after transfer.


  1. Is this supposed to be all Georgia Colleges and Universities? If so, you're missing a great deal. At least two significant ones in the Atlanta alone (Oglethorpe and Agnes Scott). Might want to use ye olde Google...

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Oglethorpe was on the graph, but I had accidentally filtered them out of the list on the right; it's fixed now. Agnes Scott isn't included because they did not submit test score information to IPEDS. They have a good graduation rate though- 72%.

  2. Quick heads-up: The correct short form for the California Institute of Technology is "Caltech", not "Cal Tech".

  3. This is a good way to to look at the data. But it would be better with 4 yr grad rates. No parent has a 6 yr plan for their child to attend college.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this data and making it so easy to undestand. It would be even more helpful to see some regression curves by major. This would be helpful to students who do not know how ready they are for what they want to study. It would also be more accurate in that some of these colleges might have higher-than-predicted graduation rates because they have more students in less demanding majors.

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