Measuring Academic Stewardship

At, we measure the influence of schools. By taking publicly available databases, such as Semantic Scholar and Wikipedia, we can measure the influence of academic persons in their respective disciplines, and then by looking at what schools they’re affiliated with (faculty and alums), we can measure the influence of the schools and their disciplinary programs. All of this we cover in our methodology and related articles.

Go to: The Best Colleges and Universities by Academic Stewardship

Not surprisingly, rich and large schools have a huge advantage in scoring high on influence. Influence can be viewed as an educational asset, and the bigger wealthier schools are in a strong position go acquire a lot of it. But what happens when smaller schools with fewer resources invest in influence wisely and, proportionately, do better in acquiring influence than large wealthy schools? Large wealthy schools have a lot of money to burn in acquiring influence. Academic Stewardship imposes a cost on poor stewardship, rewarding schools not for influence per se but for their effectiveness in acquiring influence with limited means.

Academic Stewardship is getting the most influence for the actual resources on hand. As a ranking metric, it asks how effectively schools use the financial and human resources they have to obtain influence. Academic Stewardship rewards wise stewardship, penalizes waste and extravagance. Cost-effectiveness analyses are widely used in business, but Academic Stewardship goes beyond mere cost-effectiveness. When the topic of money comes up in higher education, the focus is often on affordability and keeping costs down, rather than on clarifying how a school’s resources are contributing optimally to its academic impact.

Many of the schools that rank highly by Academic Stewardship would never get recognized in conventional school rankings, which directly or indirectly put a premium on the wealth of schools. An Academic Stewardship ranking determines which schools are most influential in light of the limits on financial and human resources that they face.

Academic Stewardship intersects with affordability and getting the best value for one’s tuition dollar, but it should not be confused with frugality or even financial responsibility. Indeed, some very wealthy schools are, by any measure, financially responsible, as witnessed by their ever growing endowments.

By contrast, the schools that appear high up in our Academic Stewardship rankings tend to be all over the map when it comes to standard accounting measures, such as tuition costs. At issue is the influence that schools can acquire given the financial and human resources available to them. If a school high in Academic Stewardship is going to charge more for tuition, such an increase needs to be reflected in the school having proportionately greater influence.

Academic Stewardship as a Metric

So what exactly is Academic Stewardship? Academic Stewardship, as we define it, is a metric for measuring influence as a function of human and financial resources. The influence score of a school, as we note in our methodology statement and expand on in our InfluenceRanking™ engine description, is the combined influence of all the people affiliated with the school, which includes both faculty and alumni.

The formula for Academic Stewardship is a fraction, and so has a numerator and denominator. We put the overall influence score of a school in the numerator. The denominator of Academic Stewardship then consists of multiplying three factors. These three factors are entirely constructed from the National Center for Educations Statistics’s IPEDS data:

The size of the undergraduate student body. The idea here is that large schools with large numbers of undergraduates dilute their influence across many students, but smaller schools may be able to concentrate their influence more effectively. If this were the only factor in the denominator, Academic Stewardship would coincide with an earlier metric we’ve developed and used widely across this site, namely, Concentrated Influence. But there’s more to Academic Stewardship.
The school’s budget. A school’s annual budget gives a good sense of what a school has to spend in acquiring influence. The budget will include salaries of faculty, which enables them to affiliate with the school and thereby contribute their influence to it. At the same time, the budget covers the cost of educating students, who by becoming influential alumni will also contribute to the school’s influence.
The maximum of i) total tuition and fees income for the year, ii) five percent of the endowment, and iii) 8,000 times size of undergraduate student body. This factor controls for wealth of schools in terms of tuitions charged and tuition costs capable of being covered by endowments (5 percent being a very modest return on an endowment and thus easily spent on influence). It also controls for public institutions that charge virtually no tuition and may have no endowment, but which clearly are getting their money from somewhere (tax payers). In our research $8,000 is as low as an education per student can go without becoming overwhelmingly subsidized.


Note that the last factor may seem a bit jury-rigged, but it works. It holds wealthy schools accountable for their wealth, especially those with large endowments, treating 5 percent of the endowment as a financial resource that schools readily have available to them without undercutting their bottom line. At the same time, this factor holds seemingly poor schools honest about their subsidization (such as through taxes or religious donations) if they show very little income from tuitions. The point is to prevent schools from claiming unfair advantages or disadvantages.

The second and third factors suggest some redundancy, with budget ordinarily incorporating income from tuition and fees. That’s true, but we are simultaneously trying to control for wealthy schools that can dip into huge endowments as well as for seemingly poor schools that can report low budget and tuition figures, but still have access to considerable financial resources. Taken together, these two factors control for fudging of budget and tuition figures.

Two more tweaks are needed for our Academic Stewardship metric. First, we limited our attention to schools with at least 700 students. To go smaller invited a lot of specialty schools, including some really fine music conservatories. But we wanted this ranking to serve nonspecialist readers interested in schools with a diversity of offerings, and so 700 seemed like a reasonable cutoff.

Also, we limited our attention to American schools that were in the top 1,000 for overall influence. We did this because we wanted to avoid schools that had extremely small overall influence but that would still come up high in Academic Stewardship because their financial resources were proportionately even more extremely small.

In formulating our Academic Stewardship metric, we needed to calibrate it to ensure that schools that do more with less do indeed get properly rewarded. We expect that this metric can still be improved. But we’re also confident that in its present form, it is closely on target.

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Our Most Surprising Find

Interestingly, in the various earlier experimental versions of the Academic Stewardship metric that we formulated, and also in the one we settled on here, we found a consistent pattern: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) kept coming up at the top, with Fisk University in particular dominating the ranking at the #1 spot.

The special recognition that this metric gave to HBCUs was remarkable and unanticipated. You can see how HBCUs thrive under the Academic Stewardship metric by using our Custom College Ranking tool set to Academic Stewardship and by diving deeper with our 50 Best Colleges and Universities by Academic Stewardship ranking.