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New rankings paint a different picture of the ‘best’ colleges in Utah

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Jim Hill
/
KUER
The Neumont College of Computer Science is located in downtown Salt Lake City, July 30, 2022.

The best college in Utah is Neumont College of Computer Science. That’s if you’re measuring for what some see as higher education's chief purpose — economic mobility.

It's the key indicator in a recent set of college rankings from Third Way, a left-of-center public policy think tank based in Washington D.C. They look at which schools are best at improving students’ economic outlook after graduation.

While traditional rankings systems like those from U.S. News and World Report have been criticized for emphasizing things like exclusivity and prestige, Third Way’s approach places a higher value on how many low-to-moderate income students a school admits, how much they earn after graduating and the time it takes to pay off the cost of attendance.

“If the primary purpose of postsecondary education is to promote economic mobility and create a consistent path to the middle class, a handful of institutions concentrated in just three states are leading the charge in delivering on that promise,” the report said.

Large, public colleges in California, Texas and New York dominated the rankings. But Neumont — a small, for-profit private school in Salt Lake City — came in at 21 out of the 1,320 schools measured. It, along with Brigham Young University, Utah State University and Utah Valley University, landed in the top 20% of U.S. degree-granting colleges nationwide.

The University of Utah, Westminster College and Southern Utah University made it into the second tier, between the top 20 and 40%, but no other Utah schools were included. While schools are ranked individually, those within the same tier largely perform similarly in terms of economic mobility. The report does not rank technical schools or community colleges.

Neumont scored high because it enrolls a relatively large number of low-income students — calculated by the proportion of students who received a federal Pell Grant (61%). Despite a total average net cost of more than $92,220, students on average earn enough to pay off their education in 2.3 years, the analysis showed. The average time for all colleges included in the rankings was 7.8 years, though there is a wide variety among schools.

Jason Thompson, Neumont’s associate admissions director, said part of the school’s success is its narrow focus. It only offers six bachelor’s degree programs, all geared toward coding and computer science — fields with lots of job openings and relatively high average salaries.

Students also learn mostly by working on projects, rather than by listening to lectures, and they’re required to get work experience through an internship before graduation.

“Everything we do focuses on what happens after college,” Thompson said. “Companies will come in from all across the board and they'll talk about who they are and what they do, but more importantly, what kind of skills they're looking for. Our freshmen get that from day one.”

While Neumont ranked highest in Utah, its overall impact is small. It only enrolls about 500 students a year, 15-20% of whom are local. Thompson said that size is partly how they ensure students get the attention they need to succeed.

BYU enrolls a smaller proportion of low-income students, but it performed well because the net cost of attending is significantly lower than other private schools, said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “heavily subsidizes tuition costs for students,” he said.

In Third Way’s analysis, the average total cost to earn a four-year degree at BYU is $34,776, and students typically make enough to pay that off in less than a year.

The rankings aren’t the first attempt to better understand colleges’ impacts on both individuals and society, Hansen said. They’re also not a complete measure, as several Utah schools were not included in the analysis. But such efforts do help to reshape how we think about the value of a degree, he said.

“The balance between the private interests of the students versus the social benefit of college more broadly, I think, is really coming into question,” Hansen said. “These rankings are trying to encourage more public discussion around what we value in college.”

It’s an important conversation, he said, as college is still seen as a significant engine of social mobility yet students from disadvantaged backgrounds also face higher barriers to attendance and completion.

Corrected: August 1, 2022 at 9:39 AM MDT
An earlier version of this story misstated Jason Thompson's title as assistant admissions director rather than associate admissions director.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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