U.S. Colleges Name Their Own “Peer Institutions,” Rank Themselves

“Peer” web for Princeton University, the highest ranked university

“When colleges look to compare themselves with others, they’re not much different from high-school students chasing popularity: Everyone wants to be friends with the Ivy League, but the Ivy League is really picky about whom it hangs out with,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education on a recent analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education [1]. Every year, all 1,600 four-year colleges and universities in the United States submit a host of data to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a database that tracks trends in higher education and the impact of federal education funding. As part of the survey, colleges are asked to list a “comparison group” of institutions, against which their finances, enrollments, graduation rates, and other data can be compared. It essentially asks institutions to rank themselves using U.S. News-style metrics.

The Chronicle mapped out this year’s “peer” selections with an interactive tool using PageRank, a tool that search engines use to calculate the sites that are most linked to by other sites. This reveals what The Chronicle calls the “power players” in higher education (represented by the largest circles)—organized spatially with pull forces so that mutual peers are placed together to form elite clusters. However, the most listed institutions aren’t just the Ivy League & Company institutions you might expect. The most commonly listed “peer institutions” are highly selective liberal arts colleges: Carleton College, listed 61 times, ranked first, while Oberlin College and Davidson College, listed 56 times each, tied for second.

“Peer” web for Carleton College, the highest ranked institution

The Chronicle noticed some interesting trends in these listings of peer institutions:

The typical college selected a comparison group of 16 colleges with a higher average SAT score and graduation rate than its own, lower acceptance rate, and larger endowment, budget, and enrollment.

The eight Ivy League colleges among them chose only 12 institutions outside their own number as peers—not surprisingly, often including the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University.

But 55 colleges outside of the Ivy League selected at least one member of that group for comparison. Some of those colleges, such as Tufts University and New York University, are rich private research institutions.

Other colleges selecting an Ivy League institution as part of its comparison group were bigger surprises: Alabama A&M University, which selected Dartmouth College, and Regent University, which selected Harvard University, Princeton University, and Yale University.

The University of Phoenix’s Jersey City campus selected 74 four-year colleges as peers, including six Ivy League institutions. (It left out Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania.)

Institutional-research officers acknowledge that their institutions’ comparison groups often include desired peers that are not true peers. Colleges want to receive data reports on enrollments, graduation rates, student costs, faculty, and budgets for institutions they aspire to be more like.

A representative from the University of Delaware, which included elite institutions like Brown University on its list, interviewed in the article stresses the difference between the “comparison groups” the survey asked for and institutional “peers.” This difference explains why institutions like Delaware were among the hundreds that listed wealthier, more selective schools as peers:

When it assesses data from comparison institutions regarding finances, research, admissions, and other measures, Ms. Kelly says, the university wants to look at colleges it wants to be more like.

“If you took a look at your actual peers, the likelihood is that you stand up pretty well with them,” Ms. Kelly says. “In order to make progress, you want to be shedding light on not just your strengths, but also your weaknesses.”

Listing so-called “aspirant schools” gives less competitive institutions access to financial and admissions data on institutions they want to emulate. Not surprisingly, the universities listed most fall into an elite group, and those elite institutions rarely included less elite institutions their peer groups.

The 107 most intensive research universities, as classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, also tended to choose one another as peers. Among them they selected only 65 institutions outside their number as peers, while 234 other colleges chose one of those intensive-research institutions.

Colored institutions are members of the American Association of Universities, an exclusive group of research-intensive institutions.

Since most data collected by the Department of Education is publicly released, databases like this inadvertently become a kind of self-ranking or advertising in which institutions publicly declare their own prestige. Yet, the only listings that carry weight are those from already-elite institutions like those in the Ivy League. Below are some notable listings from universities that were ranked highly by peers. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on which institutions think they’re too cool for school.

Peer institutions listed by Harvard University: Princeton, Stanford, Yale

The Ivy League’s elite crew (institutions the Ivies listed as their peers, excluding other Ivies): Amherst, Chicago, Duke, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Rochester, WashU, Williams

The top ranked colleges and universities by peer selection:
1. Carleton College
2. Princeton University
3. Oberlin College
4. Stanford University
5. Yale University
6. Cornell University
7. Bowdoin College
8. Amherst College
9. Williams College
10. Swarthmore College
11. Middlebury College
12. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
13. Pomona College
14. The University of Pennsylvania
15. Brown University
16. Harvard University
17. Wesleyan University
18. Columbia University
19. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
20. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
21. University of Wisconsin, Madison
22. Haverford College
23. Dartmouth College
24. Davidson College
25. Hamilton College
26. The University of Chicago
27. Grinnell College
28. Ohio State University
29. Kenyon College
30. University of California, Los Angeles

The complete map of American four-year universities. Private liberal arts colleges are light blue, private doctoral universities dark blue, public universities red, and for-profit universities green.

Some institutions like Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts college, also have strong ties to institutions in other categories.

Play with the interactive web of four-year institutions on chronicle.com (it’s pretty fun).

See how peer rankings compare to other rankings like the official U.S. News Best Colleges for 2013, which The Airspace covered last week: U.S. News Best Colleges Ranking 1983-2013.


[1] “In Selecting Peers for Comparison’s Sake, Colleges Look Upward,” The Chronicle of Higher Education

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