In the ongoing quest to measure colleges by economic payout, the Brookings Institution has released the most far-reaching effort to date.

New rankings released by the centrist think tank evaluate more than 4,000 two-year and four-year schools according to how much they add to the salaries of their alumni relative to peers with similar types of students. Brookings’ conclusion won't likely come as much of a shock: A college’s emphasis on higher-earning fields such as engineering, health care, computer science and business is a reliable predictor for higher earnings, and thus higher value in the rankings -- though that’s not the only factor.

“This is something we consider largely under the control of the school but has a great effect on how students do in terms of earnings and future economic success,” said Jonathan Rothwell, the study’s lead author, in a conference call with reporters.

The results also diverge from popular rankings such as U.S. News & World Report, which is known to reward more prestigious and selective institutions. While schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University place high on the Brookings measure, so do lesser-known schools such as the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana; Colgate University, a liberal-arts school in New York; and Washington and Lee University, a private liberal-arts school in Virginia.  

“Value-added” measures aim to determine how much the college itself contributes to the gains of alumni. The three used in the Brookings report were mid-career alumni salaries obtained from, federal student loan repayment rates and occupational earnings power, which consists of the average salary of alumni jobs. Rothwell and his co-author, Siddharth Kulkarni, said they focused on economic factors because they’re “relatively precise and easy to obtain,” but they also have “important civic and public policy implications.” “Whether concepts like meaning, happiness and living a good life can be validly measured is beyond the scope of this paper,” they wrote. 

The scores produced a percentile range from 0 to 100. That means, for instance, if a school scores 95 on earnings, it’s better than 95 percent of similar institutions in that area by Brookings’ estimation. 

The push to measure true value in higher education has been building for years. Popular college ranking systems are typically limited to hundreds, not thousands, of schools, but they’re also increasingly including “best-value” categories, which usually focus on cost. President Barack Obama also jumped into the game with a 2013 plan to tie federal aid to colleges’ value and cost. The Brookings release comes about a year after a California nonprofit and the data company Job Search Intelligence produced a ranking of about 1,200 four-year schools that also measured labor-market outcomes while accounting for student preparation and ability when they enter college. 

Brookings’ formula aims at determining what a college added to its students’ economic prospects compared with what would be predicted based on their academic preparation, race or ethnicity and family income. The authors also controlled for differences in the type of institution and the characteristics of local labor markets. Lastly, they attempt to explain the reasons for success in the economic sphere by including data on other college quality factors linked to good labor outcomes, such as graduation rates, the value of alumni skills, the share of students ready to work in technical fields and faculty salaries. 

Those college quality factors, included in the raw data, can range dramatically among top-ranking schools. Cal Tech’s high position, for instance, comes down largely to a curriculum that’s focused on courses and skills that lead to well-paying jobs, but much of Colgate’s success can’t be readily explained along those quality factors -- meaning much of its success comes down to an unknown “X factor.” The school’s course of study earns only above-average marks, but its alumni graduate into high-paying jobs, and in addition to that, the school’s graduation rate is among the top in the country, along with faculty salaries.  

In total, Brookings produced value-added scores on at least one economic factor for about 4,400 two-year and four-year schools and at least two measures of college quality for more than 7,000 institutions. That wealth of data, Rothwell argued, helps not only prospective students and federal policymakers, but also university officials and state and local leaders who are keenly interested in aligning their region’s workforce needs with college offerings. Another objective: keeping the cost of college in check. 

“The ultimate goal is to drive down costs or at least limit the very sharp growth in tuition, and competition is essential in doing that,” Rothwell said. “In order for competitive markets to work there has to be information on quality.”

Brookings computed several measures assessing the extent to which colleges add value related to graduates' salaries and loan repayment rates. The following tables list institutions having the greatest increase on graduates' mid-career earnings, as measured by the percentage difference between actual and predicted earnings in log values.

Two-Year or Lower Institutions With Highest Value-Added Mid-Career Earnings

Four-Year Institutions With Highest Value-Added Mid-Career Earnings

College Value added Predicted Earnings Actual Earnings
California Institute of Technology 49% $77,129 $126,200
Colgate University 46% $79,774 $126,600
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 45% $82,439 $128,800
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 44% $73,628 $114,100
Carleton College 43% $76,236 $117,700
Washington and Lee University 42% $81,281 $124,300
SUNY Maritime College 42% $79,637 $121,700
Clarkson University 42% $72,583 $110,700
Manhattan College 42% $72,701 $110,800
Stanford University 41% $83,864 $126,400
Harvey Mudd College 40% $89,466 $133,800
Rice University 40% $80,379 $119,900
Marietta College 39% $62,795 $93,100
Virginia Military Institute 38% $78,444 $115,000

SOURCE: Brookings Institution analysis

College Value added Predicted Earnings Actual Earnings
NHTI-Concord's Community College 22% $55,304 $68,700
Lee College 21% $55,971 $69,000
Pearl River Community College 21% $50,371 $62,000
Pueblo Community College 19% $50,473 $61,100
Briarcliffe College 19% $51,201 $61,900
Bakersfield College 17% $56,957 $67,200
Texas State Technical College-Waco 16% $55,257 $65,000
San Diego City College 16% $60,297 $70,900
Heald College-Concord 15% $55,653 $64,600
Northcentral Technical College 14% $50,302 $57,800
Minnesota State Community and Technical College 13% $52,372 $59,900
The Community College of Baltimore County 13% $54,688 $62,300
Renton Technical College 13% $56,294 $64,000
Navarro College 12% $53,184 $60,100
San Jacinto Community College 12% $56,303 $63,200

SOURCE: Brookings Institution analysis