College Guide


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

By the Editors

Many colleges reject rankings out of hand, insisting that education is too ineffable for metrics. We disagree. Students and parents need clear, comparable measures in order to make smart choices, particularly given how expensive college has become. Colleges that don’t want to be compared to their peers are just trying to avoid public scrutiny. While colleges do have a point when they complain about U.S. News’s ratings, the problem isn’t that U.S. News ranks colleges, but that it does so based on the wrong factors—like wealth, fame, and selectivity—that incentivize college administrators in the wrong ways. A college president vying for rankings glory on our list, by contrast, would have to enroll more low-income students, help them earn degrees, orient academic programs toward service, and invest in new scientific research. The country needs more of that kind of competition, not less.

Rankings are only as good as the data on which they’re based. We’ve long noted the potential to use college-level information from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a comprehensive survey of best educational practices that was originally envisioned as a counterweight to U.S. News. The problem is that most colleges won’t allow NSSE to release their results to the public. (Community colleges are not so reluctant, and have made their own similar student engagement survey data available for the world to see.) To their credit, a number of four-year public universities have banded together to voluntarily release selected NSSE results on a Web site called College Portraits ( There, some also publish data from the well-regarded Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of higher-order thinking and communications skills, and graduation rates that offer more detail than standard federal measures. Meanwhile, Congress has poured hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years into state-level information systems that will eventually yield data about how college graduates fare in the job market and graduate education.

Overall, however, colleges are still highly skittish about rankings. Prospective students can’t use College Portraits to compare data from different schools, for instance. In fact, the site’s official slogan is “No rankings, no spin … just the facts!” But rankings aren’t “spin.” Spin is what colleges do when they mail out glossy brochures that put themselves in the best possible light. Rankings, at their best, are the antidote to spin. Rankings are just the facts presented in the most logical and useful manner possible, facts that serve the broad interests of society instead of the narrow concerns of colleges themselves.

Thanks to the economic crisis, a lot of colleges are in dire financial straights these days. But the right kind of rankings could be a boon to many of these schools. The best thing about showing what you do for the country is that it gives the country more reasons to do something for you in return. The nation is badly in need of cutting-edge research, wise and knowledgeable citizens and workers, and a renewed focus on service. Our top-ranked colleges are poised to deliver.

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.