There are two schools of thought, and never before have they been so polarised. The first school of thought is that a university education is all about economics, both for the individual (higher lifetime earning prospects) and the nation (gdp growth). The second school of thought is that such an education is about self-improvement, again both for the individual (becoming a skilled, critical, reflective member of the world community) and the nation (clear-thinking, responsible adult citizens). I have written about this polarisation before, e.g. here.
Probably most people beliefs are somewhere in the middle, or rather a combination. Yes, going to university is for self-improvement, but getting a good job ain’t a bad idea either. Or, yes university is my path to lucrative employment, and if I learn a few things about myself and the world along the way, that’s all good.
So, in the UK, the league tables of Universities have an uncomfortable job of trying to quantify both of these polarised positions simultaneously, in order to satisfy everyone. There are scores for student satisfaction, the quality of staff research, and class sizes (all of which are meant to be broadly correlated to the quality of the self-improvement experience), and there are job prospect ratings also. One of the reasons why these tables give such dramatically different results (a university ranked 50th on one might be 30 on another or 80 on the third) is the weight they give to these various opposite views.
In the United States, Money Magazine has admirably avoided this nettle. It has produced a ranking based entirely on economics, on return on investment. (Typically, you might notice, it is all about the economic benefits to the individual, since on this view of matters the wider benefits could only be achieved in that way). See the nearly ecstatic Washington Post discussion here. I say ‘admirably’ — what I mean is, this is a hard-headed way of denying any validity at all to the other way of thinking about the value of education.