College Guide


August 22, 2010 11:00 PM Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

By the Editors

It wasn’t long ago that the colleges annually anointed as “America’s Best” by U.S. News & World Report— Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—served as fertile breeding grounds for future masters of the financial universe. History majors from New Haven could make the hour-long drive along the Long Island Sound to the hedge funds of Greenwich, Connecticut. The Harvard-to-Wall-Street pipeline was open full bore.

Then all those smart people destroyed their own companies and almost brought the global economy down with them. The credit markets collapsed, demand for goods and services plummeted, and millions of innocent workers lost their jobs. Today’s college graduates face the worst labor market in generations.

As a result, many are looking to do good if they can’t do well. Applications to the Peace Corps jumped 18 percent in 2009. The number of students vying for Teach for America slots increased from 18,000 in 2007 to 46,000 this year.

The renewal of a desire to serve is heartening. But the truth is that while jobs that allow you to lose billions of other people’s dollars and wreck the economy before you turn thirty have traditionally been limited to graduates of a few select institutions, a steady focus on service has not. Many colleges that fall in the middle of the U.S. News pack (or lower) have long been more inclined to spend energy and resources on encouraging students to give back to their communities and their nation, and not just themselves.

Calling attention to these service-oriented schools is one of the reasons this magazine got into the college-ranking business in the first place. When we published our first ranking in 2005 (with the expectation that it would prove a point rather than become a tradition), the idea was to upend the traditional notion of a college guide. Instead of asking what a college could do for you, we asked, “What are colleges doing for the country?” Yes, Yale might educate a disproportionate number of future hedge fund managers. But is it laying the foundation for the kind of nation we want to become?

After all, colleges and universities do as much to shape the future as any institutions you can think of. They conduct cutting-edge research that drives economic growth, provide upward mobility to people of humble birth, and mold the characters of tomorrow’s leaders. And they are supported in these endeavors with hundreds of billions of dollars in government subsidies. So we all have a stake in knowing how well schools fulfill their public missions.

But while there are plenty of guides out there that help students and parents decide how to spend their tuition dollars wisely, there wasn’t one to tell citizens and policymakers which colleges were spending their tax dollars wisely. So we devised a way to measure and quantify how well individual colleges and universities were meeting their public obligations in the areas of research, service, and social mobility (see “A Note on Methodology,” page 86), and we ranked schools based on the results.

The full rankings for national universities and liberal arts colleges begin on page 62. This year, we’ve also provided a top fifty ranking for three other categories of schools: master’s universities (page 58), baccalaureate colleges (page 60), and community colleges (page 48). And in light of surging student demand for service opportunities, we’ve enhanced our service measures for 2010. In addition to rating colleges on criteria such as the number of students participating in ROTC and the Peace Corps, we factor in five new measures, including how many students engage in community service and whether a college provides matching dollars for service-oriented scholarships like AmeriCorps.

The result is a very different perspective on higher education excellence than the one represented by U.S. News. While a few universities like Stanford do well on both rankings, many at or near the top of the U.S. News list, like Princeton and Yale, fare poorly by our count. At the same time, many colleges that are routinely buried in the lower reaches of the U.S. News rankings stand out on our list.

Here are some of the biggest standouts and surprises from this year’s Washington Monthly college rankings:

The Public Option

The U.S. News rankings are exclusionary by design: you get ahead based on the number of students you don’t admit. Since private schools are the most selective, it’s not surprising that the top twenty national universities on the U.S. News list are all private. Public institutions that serve a diverse population of students fare much better by our measures. Thirteen of our twenty highest-ranked universities are taxpayer supported, including the top-ranked University of California, San Diego. While some publics, like the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have selective admissions, others like South Carolina State and the Newark campus of Rutgers University serve students of all kinds. Both of the latter topped well-known private universities including the University of Pennsylvania (at number thirty-four), NYU (number forty-seven), and Notre Dame (number fifty-seven).

the Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.


  • Marcus Pohlmann on August 23, 2010 10:31 AM:

    Ratings should consider JDs and MDs as well as PhDs.

  • Virginia Postrel on August 23, 2010 1:34 PM:

    How about a list of the alma maters of the Washington Monthly staff?

  • Ron Bashford on August 23, 2010 3:55 PM:

    You should also do a detailed report on financial aid, especially the differences in aid given among elite private schools.

  • Nancy Yi on August 26, 2010 10:53 PM:

    Bravo Washington Monthly, bravo.

  • dianaw on August 30, 2010 7:30 PM:

    I really, really have to take issue with the fact that 7 out of the top 10 in your rankings are state universities. I have absolutely no sympathy with the "Ivy League" mantra, and in the past, you could make the case that state schools offered equal or better educations for the price. However, that is simply no longer true in this economy. State university systems are in complete crisis. They have shown no willingness to scrap sports programs to beef up their academic departments, and taxpayers are revolting at incredible tuition increases. At best, this little bubble will last another year. After that, state schools will be hollow shells. It's particularly egregious that you have 4 of the top 10 from the same state system. Do you actually think the California system, already under strain, can maintain the kind of excellence you are claiming in the face of imminent bankruptcy. The US News & World Report rankings are a joke, but so are yours. Please get serious and serve your readers with better information.

  • steve on August 30, 2010 8:35 PM:

    Make clear where you draw all the data from, not just some of it.

    It is not clear from the article what qualifies as 'service' related in terms of work-study.

    ROTC/Peace Corps are examples, but someone going to work for USAID or the State Dept can arguably be doing "service" work as well (especially in today's world).

    First generation students demonstrate mobility as well.

    Spending on research does not necessarily translate into quality research..

  • R on September 13, 2010 5:57 PM:

    Doesn't inclusion of ROTC participation put, for example, Quaker schools at a disadvantage?

  • Washington Monthly on September 21, 2010 4:57 PM:

    @Virginia Postrel
    American, Columbia, Cornell, Florida International, George Washington, Harvard, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Northwestern, Oberlin, Yale

  • Amy on January 03, 2012 7:23 PM:

    Teach for America members take away jobs from career teachers. Not doing a whole lot of public good there and provide sub-par education to students most in need of excellence.

  • Gordon Danning on January 05, 2012 3:09 AM:


    I have taught for 15 years at a public high school in Oakland, CA. We have had many Teach for America teachers, and in general they have been very good -- very much above par, compared with the norm, as a matter of fact. I say that as a proud graduate of a traditional teacher education program.