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OPINION: Being top valued should mean more

Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, which ranks everything from “The Top 10 Kirkland Products to buy at Costco” to “The Top 10 Best Contrarian Stocks to Buy This Year,” released its annual list comparing the worth  of about 1,200 colleges and universities in its “Top 300 Best College Values of 2017.”  

Belmont University snuck in, ranking 269.  If that seems low, don’t worry, we still beat Lipscomb.  The Bisons came in at 284.

“There’s no way around it: College is expensive, and it’s going to stay that way for a long time. So, with our rankings — which weigh affordability alongside academic quality — our goal is to help students and their parents understand what’s really worth the price,” said Kiplinger’s editor Janet Bodnar.

College students don’t need to be told this; they feel it.

College Board reports the total cost at a private university rose 3.4 percent in the 2016-17 school year — now sitting just over $45,000 a year.

So in a time of rising costs and uncertainty, a ranking of higher education based on value seems invaluable.  But is it?

Factors like admission and retention rates, graduation rates and student-faculty ratio make up the quality measure, which accounts for 55 percent of the total score.

To determine and compare the cost of a university, the total cost, financial aid and the average debt at graduation were used, comprising 45 percent of the total score.

But what does it mean for Belmont and for the 1,200 schools evaluated?

It means we deserve better.

The “best valued” school, Swarthmore College, has an acceptance rate of 12 percent and a sticker price of $64,840.  That’s like touting the value of a Rolls Royce; it is not the absolute best value if the majority of the population can’t even get behind the wheel.

The median American household makes roughly $50,000 a year, according 2012 United States Census data; paying more than an entire year’s income is not a good value, it’s a financial nightmare.

Faced with these sometimes impossible costs and the unpredictability of higher education as an experience good, rankings are a natural place parents and students turn to when shopping for higher education.

Those impossible costs are being addressed, albeit at the pace of the policy change.  New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo kicked off 2017 with a plan to make public college free for many families living in the state. It’s imperfect, of course, and the money has to come from somewhere.  But it’s a step.

Until the next step comes, the system of ranking, prioritizing and describing higher education could stand for a change of pace.

Routine audits of the claims made by universities are a good start, as professor and writer Jeffrey J. Selingo argued in a November 2016 article in the Washington Post.

This doesn’t mean running the numbers colleges release themselves and coming up with arbitrary scores to compare higher education apples to oranges.

The value of an experience is inherently subjective, and attempting to compare these goods on a scale without taking that into account can only result in a fraction of the information. College-seekers would be more suited to audits of claims than list after list of the “best college value.”

College is an experience, and the experience changes the good. Our discussion on college choice should reflect that.

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