Eight years ago, the Washington Monthly published its first annual college rankings. Back in 2005, America was still operating under a compact with its citizens, colleges, and universities that had stood for the better part of the previous hundred years. The taxpayers would invest in basic research while keeping tuition at public institutions low enough that middle- and lower-class students could afford a degree. In return, colleges would produce the human and intellectual capital needed to sustain economic growth and civic life.
The strength of the bargain waxed and waned over the years. It depended less on federal law than on a set of common understandings among policy makers in state capitals and Washington, D.C. Starting in the 1980s, state lawmakers developed a bad habit of using their public universities as a kind of fiscal balance wheel, slashing budgets during recessions and letting tuition hikes make up the difference. But in the long run, states managed to keep up with inflation and a huge surge in enrollment driven by the Baby Boomers’ children reaching college age. State spending per college student in 2005 still lagged from the 2001 recession, but in the growth years that followed states did what they had always done before: they invested in higher learning. By 2008, spending per student was higher than it had been twenty years before.
We designed the Washington Monthly college rankings to embody the American higher education compact at the institutional level. Instead of lauding colleges for closing their doors to all but an elite few, we give high marks to institutions that enroll low-income students, help them graduate, and don’t charge them an arm and a leg to attend. Universities that bring in research dollars are rewarded by our standards, as are those whose undergraduates go on to earn PhDs. And we recognize institutions that are committed to public service, both in the way they teach and in encouraging students to enter service-focused careers.
We do this because everyone has a stake in the conduct of our colleges and universities. We’re all affected by the productivity of our knowledge workers and the integrity of our college-educated leaders. And we all pay for higher education through hundreds of billions of dollars in annual public subsidies. This is the essence of the college bargain that has long been a pillar of national prosperity.
But something changed after the Great Recession of 2008. As with many other parts of American life, this time was different. States made unprecedented cuts to higher education budgets. By 2012, inflation-adjusted state appropriations per student were 21 percent lower than they had been in 1990. Tuition in some of the nation’s biggest public university systems jumped 50 percent or more in the span of four years.
In part, this reflected the depth and magnitude of the financial calamity. But lurking in the statements and actions of state lawmakers there was a sense that a turning point had been reached. The idea of public universities as public institutions, accountable to the citizens and accessible to all, was pushed aside and replaced by a notion of universities as private state-chartered institutions that charge whatever the market will bear. As Stephen Burd describes in “Merit Aid Madness,” some states had been on this path for decades, letting tuition rates rise while failing to provide low-income students with adequate financial aid. As Paul Stephens recounts in “International Students: Separate but Profitable,” other states have jumped on the bandwagon of replacing hundreds or thousands of home-state students with the children of wealthy Chinese government officials and businessmen who are willing to pay premium rates for an American college education.
The tragedy of this widespread public disinvestment is that the case for public spending on higher education has never been stronger. The economic calamity of 2008 exposed stark differences in the security of people with different levels of learning. People with college degrees were much less likely to lose their jobs and more likely to get them back during the slow recovery. The new wealth that has accumulated in the last few years has gone almost exclusively to college graduates. Upswings in the business cycle are no longer occasions for companies to rehire laid-off workers to their old factory jobs. Every new financial squeeze is an occasion to shed more low-skill jobs and replace them with a combination of foreign workers and machines designed and run by people who possess the knowledge and skills colleges impart.
Robust public higher education institutions give everyone a chance to navigate these treacherous economic waters. They provide the knowledge workers that fuel economic growth and thus the public resources needed to protect the vulnerable and unlucky. But the more our public colleges and universities are privatized, the more their benefits will accrue to the already privileged and wealthy, accelerating the growing inequality that increasingly stands as the defining domestic challenge of our times. The middle class built our public higher education system, and only broadly shared prosperity can generate enough aggregate demand to keep the nation’s economy in forward motion.
Our rankings aim to identify institutions that are acting on behalf of the true public interest. The complete list of our national university rankings begins on page 60, liberal arts colleges on 74, and master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges on 86. Some of the names are familiar. But others show that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces surprising results. Some famous (and expensive) colleges that routinely top the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings fare poorly by our measures, while other less-costly institutions are doing a stellar job of serving their students and their country. Here are highlights from the 2013 Washington Monthly college rankings:
The University of California, San Diego, tops our ranking of national universities for the fourth consecutive year. It is closely followed by UC Riverside, which moves up into the second slot for the first time. Campuses in the UC system represent six of our top twenty-five institutions, reflecting the University of California’s historical commitment to pairing public access with world-class research. Yet California is also one of the states that have cut university budgets and raised tuition the most. The continuing strength of the UC campuses in our rankings reflects their ongoing commitment to enrolling low-income students, and the fact that federal research spending has not been hit as hard as state support. In addition, our list is, like all rankings, relativistic. If many states cut their budgets simultaneously, the position of public universities relative to one another can remain unchanged.
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