University of Florida Is the Number 9 Public University

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Publication Date: 
Monday, February 25, 2013

Many Floridians hope that the nation’s fourth-largest state will offer its best high-school graduates a top-ten public university. Given current standings, the University of Florida has the best shot. In the most frequently cited ranking, that by U.S. News and World Report, UF usually comes in around number 17 or 18. A new ranking by four economists, however, places UF as the number nine public university, with FSU 17th.

There is concern about the U.S. News rankings. Do they apply the correct weights to different components, are the components meaningful, can they be gamed? As an example of gaming, one of the measures is the admissions rate, or the share of applicants who are admitted. The lower the admissions rate, the higher the university’s rank by that measure. Some universities, it is claimed, boost their admissions rate by encouraging clearly unqualified high school students to apply. Another measure is yield, the percentage of admitted applicants who choose to come to that university. A university can increase its yield by refusing applicants who are clearly so good that they will choose to attend a better place.

Economists think that the best way to rank goods or services is to look at what people actually buy or select.Economists think that the best way to rank goods or services is to look at what people actually buy or select. For example, if there are two $30,000 cars on the market, and people buy more of one than the other, we rank it higher. The same goes for houses. If there are two houses on the same block at the same price and one sells but the other doesn’t, we rank the one that sells higher. That approach is called “revealed preference.” Look not at what people say but at what they do. Four economists—one each from Harvard, Boston University, Stanford, and Yale—have now taken that approach to ranking universities.

They surveyed 3,240 high-achieving seniors at 510 high schools in 43 states in 2004 to see where they applied to college, where they were accepted, and later where they went. These seniors were good students, averaging the 90th percentile on SAT tests. The economists ranked universities by looking at students who were accepted at more than one. The universities the students chose to attend were ranked ahead of the ones to which they were admitted but did not attend. By their decisions, the students revealed their preferences among universities. Of course students have varying preferences, so it’s the averages across students that determining rankings.  The rankings were done both controlling for tuition, scholarships, and other variables, and without those controls. Whether controls are included turns out not to matter much. In particular, the rankings are not significantly influenced by tuition and scholarships.

Wait a minute, UF is better than Michigan and Illinois? Well, yes, say the authors, if you’re willing to use the choices of the nation’s top high school graduates as your measureThe top ten universities are what you would expect. In order, the top ten are: Harvard, Caltech, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Amherst, and Dartmouth.  All of them are private. The top ten public universities are, again in order: (Cornell), Virginia, Georgia Tech, Berkeley, Southern Cal, UNC, UCLA, UT Austin, UF, and NYU. (Cornell is in parentheses because it is part public and part private.) Just below the top ten are Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland. Wait a minute, UF is better than Michigan and Illinois? Well, yes, say the authors, if you’re willing to use the choices of the nation’s top high school graduates as your measure—and also if you’re willing to allow for uncertainty. What they say more precisely is that the probability is about 55% that UF is better than those schools. But there’s also a 49% chance that UF is better than UT Austin, ranked just ahead of it.

UF’s number nine ranking is based on quality without considering tuition and scholarships. If you want to rank “bargains” where the cost is included and not just the quality (the questionnaire asked students about scholarships and tuition, both of which can be measured), UF ranks number eight. To be clear, in overall quality with no consideration given to price, the most probable ranking for UF is the number nine public university.
Naturally, you’re free to be skeptical about the wisdom of 17-year-olds. It is conceivable that a few of them attach more importance to football and basketball than to math, science, and English. Another problem is that the data are nine years old.  But the advantages of this particular revealed preference ranking are that it is based on decisions by students placing their next four years on the line, and by their parents, and that it relates to the concern that many Floridians have for the quality of undergraduate education.

Source: Christopher N. Avery, Mark E. Glickman, Caroline M. Hoxby, and Andrew Merrick, “A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. College and Universities,”Quarterly Journal of Economics, February 2013, pp. 425-467.

Article References: 

Source: Christopher N. Avery, Mark E. Glickman, Caroline M. Hoxby, and Andrew Merrick, “A Revealed Preference Ranking of U.S. College and Universities,”Quarterly Journal of Economics, February 2013, pp. 425-467.

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