Dozens of institutions leading to a bachelor’s degree perceive themselves to be much like Carleton College.
According to a the Chronicle analysis of comparison groups that nearly 1,500 colleges submitted to the US Department of Education last year, Carleton College was the most frequently selected peer institution. It was chosen by 55 colleges.
However, as was typical among popular choices in the The Chronicle’s analysis, Carleton did not reciprocate. Carleton selected 25 colleges as peers; 20 of them also chose Carleton, making them common peers.
There’s no shortage of ways to compare colleges, and they’re often based on viewer assumptions. What makes the dataset in The Chronicle’It should be noted that it is the institutions that select these comparison colleges themselves. In return for their submission, colleges receive “data feedback reports” produced by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The reports allow colleges to see how they compare to other institutions on metrics such as enrolment, admission and graduation rates and average staff salaries. The choices colleges make about who to bond with themselves speaks volumes about what they value, how they view their status in the higher education ecosystem, and, for some, what their aspirations are.
Christine M. Keller, executive director and CEO of the Association for Institutional Research, said choosing peer groups can be tricky.
“It’s a bit of an art and a science,” Keller said. “In some cases you look at: are they really doing something well that you want to improve at? I think it’s important to base your choices on data and look at the goals and purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
The average comparison group in the Department of Education data was about 18 colleges. But many institutions have selected far more than that. For example, the University of Tampa chose 100 colleges, the maximum allowed, in 33 states – including Loyola Marymount University, California; Rollins College; Appalachian State University; and the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.
At the other end of the spectrum, the private, for-profit Grand Canyon University chose only one peer for comparison — one of seven colleges to do so. But 12 mostly for-profit institutions chose the Grand Canyon as part of their comparator group. And several colleges did not submit peer lists at all. In such cases, the center generates a cohort based on the control type, Carnegie classification, and enrollment size.
For the most part, Ivy League colleges chose each other as peers, although Columbia and Princeton universities chose neither college. When venturing outside of their ranks, Ivy League colleges selected institutions such as Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago. Cornell University has chosen a handful of public colleges from its group, most of them flagships: the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Los Angeles and University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Forty-six colleges outside of the Ivy League have chosen at least one member of this elite group as their peer. Major public research universities—such as the University of Delaware, the University of Virginia, and the Georgia Institute of Technology—and several wealthy private research institutions, as well as selective private liberal arts colleges, were among them. Bowdoin College, for example, selected all eight Ivy League institutions as part of its 98-member comparator group.
And in some comparison groups, Ivy League colleges made an unexpected appearance. Both Molloy and Manhattan colleges have chosen Columbia – in geographic proximity to both – as one of their peers.
It was not uncommon for colleges to select at least some larger, more selective or better-resourced comparison colleges, the analysis showed. In such cases, the choice of a peer may be deliberately aspirational.
For example, if a public research institution compares its faculty pay to its peers whose faculty pay is significantly higher, Keller said, it has the data it needs to justify closing the gap. .
“You can take that information and say, we’re looking at top universities, and that’s one of the things that’s holding you back,” Keller said.
About half of historically black colleges and universities had comparison groups that were all — or nearly all — other HBCUs.
And some HBCUs only selected a few HBCUs as peers. For example, Virginia State University’s comparison group of 25 institutions included two HBCUs—South Carolina State University and Delaware State University—among a wide range of public and private colleges.
While Carleton was the most sought after peer, the other colleges leading to a bachelor’s degree were not far behind in terms of popularity.
Kenyon College was selected by 49 institutions as part of a comparison group, while Oberlin and Allegheny Colleges – tied for third place – were selected by 48.
The comparison group data captures a moment in time, but the institutions change. Missions change, enrollment dwindles, and strategic priorities fade, meaning the work of peer selection is never done.
Says Keller: “You’ll never find a perfect set of peers.”