What’s a college worth to you? These data sources go beyond the rankings.

College rankings and university data don’t always paint the full picture. These institutions  typically show numbers that look good for them, and ranking sites may only focus on metrics like acceptance rates and graduation rates to determine the “best.”

While there are plenty of sources out there — like QS World University Rankings and Times Higher Education rankings — that can give you insights about job placement rates, student-to-faculty ratio and so on, it is worthwhile to look beyond these numbers.

Here are a few alternative statistics and data to consider for your next data-driven education story.

Find out how much they spend on students

Instead of focusing on how hard a school is to get into, check out how much different types of colleges invest in students each year. This number is usually not accounted for in ranking methodologies but is a good indicator of growth and how genuinely vested the institute is in its students’ overall development.

Here are a few sources that can help you start analyzing this data:

While these may not provide information on how much individual institutions spend on students, these sources can give you a real starting point to analyze how much colleges allocate for students, which is helpful when comparing how much they charge. The “selectivity” factor does not always equal a quality education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). Postsecondary Institution Expenses. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved August 30, 2023, from

Be cautious with ROI calculators

Return on Investment calculators, like the ones provided by Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, Payscale and Brookings Institution, promise to help you find the “best value” in a college.

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But Zachary Bleemer, assistant professor of economics at Princeton University and the author of “Metrics That Matter: Counting What’s Really Important to College Students,” suggests in his book to not to put all your eggs in this basket. These calculators tend to ignore the non-financial perks of education and social returns of investments, including the impact on your health and community. While they can be a helpful tool, they shouldn’t be your only truth for guidance. 

Here are a few sources to understand ROI better and what you might be missing:

Look beyond wage by major

Average expected wages do not guarantee or doom your financial success in a particular field. This metric often hides a bunch of tricky assumptions that can make them hard to rely on. 

For example, if you compare political science and anthropology majors, you might see a difference in earnings, but it may not be a straightforward story. It could be a gap in the job market data, personal preference and how one is able to utilize the skills. It could also mean that one degree is more marketable, or perhaps high-achieving students are drawn more to one field.

The complexity is high and hence depending solely on this metric when choosing a field of study wouldn’t be very wise. Here are a few sources that are worth checking out:

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Ask whether students are engaged in learning and community

While engagement is difficult to measure, there are many markers that can help you decipher if the university takes it seriously.

How encouraging are they with students pursuing independent projects? Is there a robust mentor-mentee program? Is there a co-op program, and what does it look like? What kind of extracurricular activities are offered? These are all important opportunities that can contribute to a student’s success.

Data tied to engagement can provide a more holistic perspective of how students are thriving outside of the classroom. Here is one comprehensive study to help you dive into this: 

There is so much data out there about colleges and universities that can be confusing and often misleading, but looking beyond the usual metrics can help provide a deeper analysis of higher education.

Mitali Sarin

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