College Guide


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

By The Editors

The University of California stands out—five of our top eleven universities are part of the UC system, with San Diego joined by the campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, and Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, feckless voters and incompetent politicians have spent the last several decades running California into a financial ditch. When the recent recession arrived, higher education took a mighty hit, forcing the university to furlough staff and impose an astonishing 32 percent tuition hike. It’s terrible to watch a wealthy state like California dismantle one of the world’s great university systems. We hope they fix matters before UC schools begin to slide down in our rankings.

Status Anxiety

A few colleges have cannily played the status game over the years and climbed into the company of the Ivies and other well-known schools. But it has come at a cost to their public mission. (See Daniel Luzer, “The Prestige Racket,” page 42.) Washington University in St. Louis is number twelve according to U.S. News but appears twenty-four spots lower on our list, in part because only 5 percent of its undergraduates qualify for Pell Grants. Northeastern University in Boston, another up-and-comer, which places eightieth on U.S. News, is number 172 on our list because it enrolls few low-income students and has a lower graduation rate than it should. Washington, D.C.-area institutions like American University, George Washington, and the University of Virginia all do poorly on our rankings because they have Pell Grant rates of 10 percent or less. Everyone pays for these institutions through tax subsidies and federal grants. But for the most part, only the well-off need apply.

Back in Black

Many of our best liberal arts colleges were founded with a specific mission in mind. Morehouse College, an all-male historically black college in Atlanta, takes over the number one ranking this year. Morehouse enrolls an unusually large number of low-income men, graduates most of them, makes significant contributions to research, and has an active ROTC program. Dillard University and Fisk University, also historically black institutions, both make our top thirty. U.S. News relegates them to the “third tier,” largely as a consequence of the fact that they serve an academically and economically diverse group of students. We rank them near the top for the same reason.

Historically black Spelman, meanwhile, is our eighth-best liberal arts college. It’s also all female, a trait that a number of other highly ranked colleges share. Bryn Mawr is number two this year, and Wellesley is number ten, with Smith not far behind. Most historic women’s colleges have long since become coeducational. Those that remain are distinguishing themselves in putting women on the path to opportunity.

Lives Well Led

Colleges should be judged not just on who they enroll and how many graduate but on what students do with their lives after they leave. The College of William and Mary is ranked tenth among national universities because an unusually large number of graduates go on to earn PhDs or join the Peace Corps. Reed College in Oregon checks in at number thirteen on the liberal arts college list for the same reason. Wellesley and Smith are both in the top five in sending alumnae on to doctoral degrees.

On the other end of spectrum we find the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Despite being classified by the nonprofit Carnegie Foundation as a research university, only eleven of its graduates earn PhDs in an average year. That’s one-sixth as many as Wellesley produces, despite the fact that Fairbanks enrolls three times as many students. Fairbanks also enrolls an abnormally small number of low-income students and has a catastrophic 23 percent graduation rate. (See Ben Miller and Phuong Ly, “College Dropout Factories,” for more on the hidden college graduation rate crisis, page 20.) Perhaps the mama grizzlies in Alaska need to do a better job of minding their cubs.

Look Who Serves

Our newly improved service rankings highlight institutions that are usually far from the national spotlight. Virginia’s Emory & Henry College is one of them. The front page of its Web site trumpets the college’s 2009 designation as one of only six institutions, out of 780 applicants, to receive the President’s Award for Higher Education Community Service. Would that more colleges marketed themselves this way.

But well-known institutions can do well, too. Stanford is unusually service focused, one reason it’s our highest-ranked private university. The University of Texas at Austin, our fifth-ranked university, is world-renowned for its archives, museum, and Division I football team. But it also spends 31 percent of federal work-study dollars on service, far more than most. Austin is number three nationwide in the percent of students who participate in service programs and the total number of hours they devote.

Not all elite universities are so generous. Yale, Brown, and Duke all rank near the bottom in spending federal work-study funds on service, each below 8 percent. It’s dubious that wealthy private universities like these receive work-study funds at all, given their vast endowments. It’s worse that they give back so little to their local communities.

The Joy of Rankings

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.