University Rankings: Wall Street Journal, ACTA, QS

I, working with Cambria Consulting (see below), was involved heavily creating the WSJ’s Top 25 College rankings which are in today’s papers. All questions on the methods, I defer to them.

College, or university, rankings are not and cannot be all-encompassing. This is because colleges are not singular entities, but serve at least three distinct purposes. The first, and probably foremost in most students’ minds, is job training. This is rational: most employers now want a candidates to have a “degree” (a certificate only weakly correlated with education). To which school should a student go to get the best job?

Second is in fact education, the traditional—now historical?—reason for a college to exist: who teaches what, who is the most rigorous, the least demanding, and so forth. Last is research: from which institutions do the most new thoughts emerge, who pumps out the most papers, where do professors most want to work, etc.

Being a top school in one dimension does not guarantee top rankings in another dimension. This much is obvious.

Jobs: Wall Street Journal

To find the best schools, in the sense of students finding work in their preferred majors, the WSJ asked recruiters, “From which schools do you prefer to recruit Accountants? Aerospace Engineers?” And so on.

(As I mentioned above, I am an interested party in this, so I will keep my discussion brief, and simply point people to the WSJ for clarification.)

Penn State University won first place, followed Texas A&M and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. View the complete list here.

The first-place ranking for Penn State is across all majors, which means Penn State might not be the school of choice for recruiters looking to hire, say, MIS graduates. The number one school for that is Purdue; while the number one school for Business and for Finance (separate majors), was the University of Michigan.

See this excellent article by Teri Evans for more details.

Education: ACTA

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) took the view that education is the most important factor for students choosing a college. They rated schools based on the number of core competencies required.

These were: composition, literature, foreign language, history, economics, mathematics, science. Schools which required six or more of these—and required them in their true senses—received “A”s, with lower grades going to schools requiring less. “True sense” means, for example, a course in “quantitative reasoning” cannot be substituted for mathematics.

Top schools were few; only 16 of the hundreds of American colleges and universities received an “A.” Here are some: St John’s (in Maryland and New Mexico), Baylor, United States Air Force Academy, Thomas Aquinas, University of Dallas.

As an example of the difference in dimensions: Cornell rated 14 on the WSJ‘s “job” list, but it received an “F” from ACTA, because it only requires a foreign language and nothing else. Worse, “quantitative reasoning” can be substituted form math, non-science courses for science, and there is no concreteness to the composition requirement.

An “F” does not, of course, mean that students attending that sad college cannot received a fine education; but it does imply that the probability of finding an uneducated graduate from that college is higher. Similarly, a student attending an “A” school might still graduate ignorant.

The ACTA site is well worth the time spent browsing the colleges.

Research: QS

The QS rankings, appearing yearly, unlike the previous two rankings, are worldwide. The most important criterion was academic reputation, defined in the usual manner of papers published, citations, perceived importance, and so forth. They also considered employer reputation: how many graduate students find jobs, etc.

To emphasize, the QS ratings are more important to professors and to students wishing to become graduate students.

Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, University College London, and MIT are the top five picks. Once more, a high ranking here does not imply a top ratings in the other lists. To continue to follow Cornell: it was 16 in the world on the QS list, 14 on the WSJ list, and again a “F” on the ACTA scale.


The QS rankings here are the top USA schools. The top ACTA rankings were chosen from the list of “A” schools. The WSJ rankings are across all majors.

Jobs: WSJ Education: ACTA Research: QS
1. Penn State 1. St John’s 1. Harvard
2. Texas A&M 2. Thomas Aquinas College 2. Yale
3. U. Illinois 3. U.S. Air Force Academy 3. MIT
4. Purdue 4. U.S. Military Academy 4. U. Chicago
5. Arizona State 5. U. Dallas 5. Cal Tech


  1. University administrators would undoubtedly take the rankings seriously.

    Considering the the recruiter picks, tuition and my personal experience, UM is the best, followed by Texas A&M!

  2. Matt:
    Was there a breakout of recruiters in the WSJ study by industry segment? Did Investment Banks, Consulting Firms have the same preferences? My experience is that these folks in these segments look for a different type of student and students in the Ivies tend to prefer these types of careers – if they do not want to be academics, doctors or lawyers.

    I am not surprised by the rankings nor by the engineering/Mid-West flavor of these schools. This is a far more important list than the best party school list.

    One other rationale for not choosing the Ivies, MIT or CalTechs is that in many engineering/technical companies entry level jobs tend to be demanding but not necessarily bleeding edge. I recall doing work for one large, big name, high tech company headquartered in Texas who had a problem with turnover among its new engineers and cs hires. They recruited top students from the top East and West Coast engineering schools. Seems the cosmopolitan types had difficulties both with the mundane nature of work and life outside of the big cities! After analyzing who left and why, we recommended hiring more entry level hires from among top 15% of students at large engineering programs in the Mid-West and South-East especially those who came from more rural/small town communities and who had more realistic career expectations. Horses for courses, I guess.

  3. Hmm, my alma mater, UCLA, got 17th on WSJ, a C with ACTA, and 35th in the world according to QS.

    Not a bad showing. All I really care about, however, is that UCLA trumps that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Mos Eisley. Looks good. USC scored 24th with the WSJ, but only 117th on QS. C with ACTA, but I’ll give ’em that one.

    Now if only USNWR could recognize the gospel truth, here.

  4. Bernie,

    Only indirectly, by looking at which recruiters went after specific majors. As you might expect, some recruiters focused on particular majors. The more a recruiter recruited in a major, the more weight they received.

  5. An “F” does not, of course, mean that students attending that sad college cannot received a fine education; but it does imply that the probability of finding an uneducated graduate from that college is higher. Similarly, a student attending an “A” school might still graduate ignorant.

    I would dispute this. Surely differential amounts of academic curiosity and the student body’s willingness to be intellectually challenged between schools is going to play some role in how likely they are to be educated no?

    The ACTA methodology from what I saw only seemed to look at college-wide requirements too. It doesn’t seem to factor in the fact that some schools will leave components of the holistic education as requirements for majors within departments. For instance, at my alma mater while there was no formal math requirement, every major but the humanities ones would require statistics as a minimum. And frankly, math requirement or not I don’t generally trust English majors to figure out how to split the bill. Moreover, given that 80% of the incoming student body was pre-med, that essentially meant that the vast majority of them were going to end up taking at least one semester of calculus (before becoming frazzled and rethinking their lives.)

  6. That is so depressing. I went to Florida Institute of Technology and it didn’t make any list. Evidently a hotbed of mediocrity. However, we do have a top rated surfing team.

  7. Hey! At least I went to school with Ted Danson. Not to mention those fine artists, Andy Warhol and George Romero who are also fellow alumni (albeit noncontemporaneous with Ted and myself). Both innovative to say the least. How Andy managed to sell one of his paintings for $100M is beyond me, though. George cleverly dug up a bunch of zombies for movie extras — dirt cheap I hear. Ahead of its time; almost as good as CGI. How many faux pub owners attended your school? The efficacy of a statistical study depends upon the variables selected. Obviously, this study neglected some very important ones. 😉

    Just curious, but how predictive is your study? Your third sentence (first non-italized) sounds like equivocation.

  8. I suggest a fourth category would be appropriate: dis-education. That is, which universities fill the heads of students with erroneous information (fallacies, superstitions, illogic, etc.) that has to be unlearned later (or not, tragically). Similarly, how much of the “research” is actually biased and distorted and serves to make society more stupid and ignorant?

    The assumption that universities have a positive rather than a negative impact to civilization is very questionable in this day and age. We march backwards.

  9. Briggs,

    Who says I’m not? I had my picture on page one of the NYT B section once — dead-center no less. So there!

  10. Mike D:
    Interesting thought. I am reminded of the selection criteria apocryphally used at the Harvard Business School: “Will this person be wildly successful even if they do not attend HBS?” If “yes”, we want them. If “no”, put them in the random draw bunch to make up our numbers. Somewhat cynically, at a full cost of around $300K plus, how much value is HBS adding for such students?

  11. Interesting.
    I don’t have much faith in studies based on polls. I’m not complaining, my school OSU, came out #12. I wonder how much impact the size has? If I were recruiting, I’d probably favor the big schools.

  12. As pointed out by JH, university administrators take these ranks very seriously. Being outside the US our administrators take the QS ranking *very* seriously. Sadly, many funding decisions within the university try to ‘play the game’ looking to climbing up the ranking, which has little or no relationship with academic quality as received by students.

  13. John:
    I helped design recruiting systems for big companies. There is a certain serendipity to which schools get focused on by which companies. One of the keys is the sense of identity and loyalty engendered by a school among its graduates. If it is strong, then graduates of good programs who become involved in recruiting push for their schools to be part of the process: They take pride in recruiting at their alma mater and helping their school. Once on the preferred list, such schools tend to become more and more established. Then other dynamics take over. Once a company is looking to hire multiple candidates, the more important it is that the schools’ career offices plus key professors work with recruiters. Notre Dame and Purdue, for example, were big favorites with a couple of my clients and a number of the professors there developed good reputations for spotting and promoting talented students. Good companies invest in their recruitment process.

    I also recall a couple of big name MBA programs that were really trashed in national rankings by their students because their career offices were pitiful and did not work to get companies to invest seriously in their recruiting efforts at the school. When what you are essentially selling is access to better careers, a core competency better be around recruiting and employment support.

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