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Waiting to see if college ranking formulas still compute

For college students and their parents, the one consolation for closed campuses during the pandemic was that most institutions reimbursed room and board payments and, in some cases, partial tuition. No service, no fees. It was a financial disaster for many colleges and universities. Even small ones lost millions.

Colleges fear that might be just the start. Many institutions of higher learning, especially private liberal arts colleges, count on the campus life experience to create fond and avid alumni who will return for reunions and reward their alma mater when the degree it conferred led to a successful career and a comfortable life. That good vibe a high school senior can get from stepping foot on campus at a college where they might apply? College business models depend on keeping that going.

So, small colleges and large universities alike had already been nervously watching inroads by online, for-profit, bachelor's degree-granting institutions. Once the residential campuses closed to avoid Covid and switched to online classes, the newcomers had a lot of digital catching up to do. 

Traditional institutions know they still risk losing former residential students to a less expensive online university. The percentage of students who gave up on their residential colleges during the first year of the pandemic trended in the single digits, but that still casts a cloud over the premises for colleges' financial planners. Room and board bring in more than they cost to provide, but not if there are too few takers. Students could decide that loss of a presence among classmates on campus and in-person access to faculty makes their expensive chosen school like just any old online educational experience.

All this could make the 2022 college and university rankings by magazines — U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Washington Monthly — and others such as Princeton and College Raptor all the more important to the academic institutions. The lists are essentially consumer shopping guides, each based on slightly different, publicly available statistics about everything from campus diversity to number of faculty with the highest degree in their field to average earnings for recent graduates. The earning estimates tell a lot when compared to the annual costs that may have to paid off for years.

Who can tell what the X factor of the pandemic year will be when a college is measured by what students now want from higher education?

The latest rankings are coming out, however, and the University of Connecticut must be satisfied to have maintained its shared rank of No. 23 among the nation's top 25 public universities in U.S. News & World Report, the best known and most widely cited list. UConn did well for class sizes, faculty compensation and a subjective scorecard of what administrators at other institutions think of its reputation for undergraduate programs. In other words, the university gets good cred on the very thing most parents want to know first, besides the cost: the quality of the four-year program that will get their son or daughter a bachelor's degree and an entree to life after college, whether a career or more academics. Forbes, on the other hand, gives UConn 70th place on it lengthy list of America's Top Colleges.

U.S. News & World Report ranks Connecticut College 50th among national liberal arts colleges this time around. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is No. 1 in Regional Colleges North. The placement of the nation's only Coast Guard academy in a regional category ought to be a clue that the lists can't be used to get quick answers as to which "top" school is the "best" school.

For those who trust their intuition there will always be the gut-reaction factor to fall back on. If it feels right, it might be worth going into debt for.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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