Why the Voices of Alumni Matter

America's "elite" four-year colleges and universities, unlike community colleges and other less celebrated four-year programs, have been engaged in a fierce esteem contest to collect every positive endorsement available from every imaginable source. This creates a cycle:

  • More students apply due to positive buzz
  • Fewer applicants are accepted, driving esteem through selectivity
  • The school commands a higher price because the applicant pool becomes better
  • Donations from alumni rise (the colleges hope) to fund a larger endowment and increased investment toward the college's vision and mission

Although many academic purists cringe at such a commercial concept, this brand-building cycle is being practiced regularly.

We have every right to set high expectations for our post-secondary schools. We expect our colleges and universities to thoroughly teach and develop our youth - to enhance them intellectually, socially, politically - and to prepare them for a meaningful life of contribution and fulfillment along whatever path a student chooses. We created The Alumni Factor because we want to know which colleges excel in fully developing students. We want to pierce the bubble of reputation to understand how graduates actually perform post graduation - and hear what they have to say about the job their college did to prepare them. While there may be a number of legitimate means to assess this, listening to and analyzing the graduate is rarely used as a method. As the "output" of these schools, graduates are the most authoritative source of this information. While we may never know with statistical certainty the role their particular college played, we believe our methodology is a significant step toward that end and finally puts the customer - the graduate - at the center of the rankings debate.

What can prospective college students and their parents learn from college graduates?

1. Any definition of success is complex, personal and multi-faceted. It is a tricky proposition, so we did not attempt to do it lightly, or on our own. We studied the current research regarding the objectives students have when attending colleges. We also asked students, parents and graduates themselves what their most important goals were in choosing a college. From this, we structured our research to understand how well colleges performed in developing students against the desired benefits identified. The 15 factors we measure and report upon in our ranking were ultimately those we deemed most important based on student, graduate and parental input. These, along with other factors such as cost, size, location, and program offerings, lead to our next conclusion.

2. There are real and fundamental differences between colleges in terms of the actual outcomes of their graduates. For those lucky enough to experience them, the years spent in undergraduate education are likely the most significant period of intellectual, social, emotional and political development experienced by a young adult. Values and beliefs are challenged, faiths are tested, visions are expanded, ambitions are hardened and characters are forged - raw carbon, to rough diamond, to brilliant gem. This transformation is, with minor variation in words, the mission of all of America's leading colleges and universities. What we learned is virtually all colleges and universities transform their students, but they each do it uniquely. A very select few produce graduates who experience equally strong outcomes across the diversity of things people might expect from a college education. Most, instead, seem to be very good at a handful of things, and the variability between schools across different metrics is striking. Rather than reducing each institution down to some vague notion of reputation, it is worthwhile absorbing the more nuanced and realistic picture the real-world experiences of alumni can provide.

3. A college's reputation does not always translate into measurable results for its alumni. In fact, our data suggest one-third of the colleges we studied have reputations that exceed actual graduate results (they are overrated); one-third have graduates whose outcomes are better than the college's reputation would suggest (they are underrated) and the remaining one-third are matched by the results of their graduates. We learned there are many graduates from less prestigious schools whose results, across almost any dimension of success, exceed those of graduates from the most sought-after schools. You do not need a degree from an Ivy League school to be financially successful or happy. Nor does a degree from a prestigious school guarantee you will be financially successful or happy. It is important for prospective students to understand what a college can and cannot do for them and which colleges would provide them the best return on their (or their parents') investment.

4. Your choice of college is not your destiny; but your odds of success increase at some schools, assuming you find the right fit. Students enter into their college experience with an accumulated set of advantages brought about by parental education, family upbringing, socioeconomic status, individual traits and character, and prior educational experiences. Those don't magically disappear when one walks through ivy-clad gates. Ambitious, smart students and success stories can be found on every campus. However, our results also show the odds of becoming successful (again, as defined by the individual) are greater for graduates of certain colleges than others. Parents and prospective students should know these results when determining where all that hard work, money and ambition might be best placed.

One of the best illustrations of consumer feedback influencing real-world performance comes from the US auto industry. Following a career as a researcher inside both Ford and General Motors, David Power knew there was a better way to give consumers a more objective way to determine who built the best cars. The US auto industry, long controlled by industry insiders arrogant enough to believe the consumer would fall in love with whatever came out of their behemoth plants, was very good at "inhaling its own exhaust," as the saying goes. When James David (J.D.) Power began his own research company in 1968, he simply asked consumers what they thought of the cars they had purchased. In the early days, when he showed his research to auto company executives, they would often scoff at any negative feedback from the consumers and dismiss it as either confused consumers or faulty research. J.D. Power was persistent: he changed the way we purchase cars, and the way auto companies build them. Auto companies began to listen to the people who know their cars best - the drivers. Imagine if, instead of asking buyers about the quality and performance of their vehicle, a car was judged by asking General Motors what they thought of Ford cars, and asking Chrysler what they thought of General Motors vehicles and so on; ranking how much money each auto maker had in its bank account; or counting how many people came to different branded auto dealerships to take a test drive. For too long we have accepted that sort of methodology to assess the quality of our colleges and universities.

A college degree is a key to opening a life of personal development, fulfillment, success and happiness. However, the cost of obtaining that key has risen disproportionately to every other sector in America save one: healthcare. Over the past generation, the cost of attending college has increased at about twice the rate of inflation. While the laws of supply and demand apply to colleges as they do to all enterprises, US colleges are a complex mix of private enterprise and public utility. The increasing economic and social need for a student to attain a college education has led to dramatic increases in the percentage of high school students who pursue a college degree. Add to that the growing number of foreign students who are applying to US colleges, and it explains the dramatic acceleration of demand being placed upon our US collegiate system. Yet, the colleges' supply has been slow to meet the demand, putting upward pressure on the cost of a college education at the most highly regarded schools. This has led to a very select group of "luxury," high-end "brands" among the 2,400 undergraduate colleges and universities. Is the premium price for these high-end schools worth the money? You will see ahead that in some cases the answer is yes, while in others the additional cost is not justified. And you will also find hidden gems that transform students' lives with very little fanfare and relatively low cost. The Alumni Factor provides a detailed profile of graduates from the Top 227 colleges across the US. Our research has shown that each institution, with its longstanding traditions and hallowed history, leaves a distinct and lasting impression on its graduates. We've learned these unique impressions, like genetic DNA markers, can distinguish graduates of one college from those of another.

We certainly are not proposing that all differences between college graduates are the result of college choice. The diverse views and differentiated results of graduates are certainly a reflection of their total education, their family upbringing and social environment, and of thousands of other factors that resolutely make each of us unique. Yet you will likely notice, as you view the results, there are substantive differences in the beliefs and views of graduates across many of the colleges.

All colleges produce successful and unsuccessful graduates, conservative and liberal graduates, happy and unhappy graduates, graduates who love their college and graduates who do not. However, our nation's portfolio of colleges and universities is celebrated the world over for its excellence and leadership. The broad array of choices and the breadth of academic, social, intellectual and cultural options among them, allows each student the chance to find a nearly perfectly fit. Around the globe, other countries are working to dramatically improve their post-secondary education offerings. It is our hope this work will, in some way, contribute to maintaining and widening the competitive advantage currently enjoyed by the US in the post-secondary education market.

Ongoing work will continue to broaden our scope, so that more of the country's 2,400 undergraduate schools are included. We hope you will find The Alumni Factor to be a fascinating look at the incredibly diverse choices available to capable students today. If nothing else, you will be much better informed about each college by its alumni who have lived, studied and played on the campuses you are considering. Above all, we wish you the best in selecting your college and in making the most of the wonderful experience upon which you are about to embark.