College Guide


June 30, 2009 1:37 AM Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

By The Editors

This summer, a group of sixty-one liberal arts college presidents announced that they would no longer participate in the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings. We were of two minds about this news.

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On the one hand, we’ve long argued that the U.S. News ratings are silly, because they don’t measure what its editors say they measure: academic excellence. What U.S. News does to arrive at its results involves gauging things like average faculty salaries, for instance, or the level of praise for one college from the presidents of other colleges. Maybe that’s not totally useless, but it’s also a bit like assessing the quality of restaurants based on the effectiveness of their advertising and how much they spend on linen. Given the tremendous influence the U.S. News guide nevertheless has on university administrators and prospective students, our first instinct was to cheer the college presidents’ Spartacus-like rebellion.

On the other hand, we couldn’t help but suspect that what motivated the colleges wasn’t just anger at the inadequacies of the U.S. News methodology, but a desire to avoid rankings altogether. Though the protesting schools vowed to create their own, better measures of academic excellence, we weren’t too surprised to see the group’s chair, Gettysburg College President Katherine Haley Will, claim in the Washington Post that an “educational experience can’t be reduced to one number, a school’s so-called rank.” Instead, she argued, “we must encourage students to look inside their hearts and trust their instincts when it comes to choosing a college.”

How beautiful. Trusting in the oracular powers of the heart may have been the right advice for Obi-wan Kenobi to offer Luke Skywalker as the young Jedi-to-be swung a light saber while blindfolded. But it’s understandable that students and parents who are about to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for a life-determining college education might be looking for more solid information. Some colleges and universities simply do a better job of educating students than others, and rankings are the most broadly understandable way to convey that truth. U.S. News’s numbers may be deeply flawed, but its aim is perfectly worthy—indeed, it’s essential.

But even if U.S. News were able to discern the academically “best” schools, that would be only one kind of ranking. There are other, equally important ways to judge colleges. We believe that what colleges do matters not just to prospective applicants, but also to the rest of us. After all, America depends on its institutions of higher education for a variety of crucial public tasks: conducting the cutting-edge research that drives the economy; offering students from low-income families a path to a better life; and positively shaping the characters of the young people who will go on to lead the country. Government provides colleges and universities with billions of dollars in research grants, tax benefits, and student financial aid to achieve these goals. If parents and teachers deserve to know how well colleges are spending their tuition dollars, shouldn’t average citizens also have a way of finding out how well schools are spending their tax dollars?

That’s what the Washington Monthly College Rankings are meant to provide: a guide not just to what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. For the third year in a row, we’ve sifted through reams of publicly available data to come up with what we think is a fair assessment of which colleges are living up to their public interest mission, and which aren’t. (click here for the full rankings)

We use three criteria that we believe best measure the impact schools have on the country. The first is social mobility: does the school do a good job recruiting and graduating poorer students? The second is research: is the school supporting the scientific and humanistic study that is key to our national strength, by producing PhDs and winning research grants? And the third is service: how effectively does the school foster an ethic of giving back to the country, either through military or civilian service? (For further details, see “A Note on Methodology”)

The results, summarized in the charts here, may surprise you. First and foremost, you’ll notice that the elite schools don’t perform nearly as well on the Washington Monthly’s rankings as they customarily do on U.S. News’s. Indeed, among last year’s U.S. News top ten, only Stanford cracks our top ten. There are also some unexpected stars.

Here are a few of this year’s other noteworthy findings:

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton may make up the top three finishers on this year’s U.S. News list, but by our measures they don’t perform nearly as well. The alma maters of John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Brooke C. Shields come in at, respectively, twenty-seventh, thirty-eighth, and (yikes!) seventy-eighth place. Our top Ivy? Humble Cornell, which places seventh, thanks to the large numbers of its graduates who earn PhDs or join the Peace Corps.


  • johnny on September 02, 2009 1:17 PM:

    I don't understand. The article says that Caltech is at 141st, but the list posts them at 29th...

  • ginny on October 01, 2009 8:29 PM:

    what a stupid way to rank colleges. Instead of academic acheivement--how many Pell Grants? you have got to be kidding.

  • ginny on October 01, 2009 8:32 PM:

    the next thing you know, you'll be ranking them on the number of basket-weaving classes they have.