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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 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

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 (www.collegeportraits.org). 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.

Comments

  • 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:

    @Amy

    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.