The University of Texas at El Paso and Tennessee State University are both among our highest-ranked universities despite the fact that they usually rate much lower on other national lists of elite institutions. These universities enroll large numbers of low-income students and graduate more of them than the economic and academic profiles of their students would predict, while charging the kind of affordable tuition that is increasingly rare. As Robert Kelchen shows in “America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges,” this “bang for the buck” measure of performance and price identifies institutions that are outpacing their peers in helping students finish college while keeping costs and prices under control.
Other universities, by contrast, continue to raise prices while contributing little to the national interest of helping middle- and lower-income students earn college degrees. Only 6 percent of students attending the elite Washington University in St. Louis qualify for the federal Pell Grant program, one of the lowest percentages in the nation, while the university charges students an eye-popping average net price of over $32,000 per year. The College of William and Mary is one of the nation’s oldest universities, but it betrays its public purpose by limiting Pell Grant enrollment to 10 percent of the student body. Duke, Yale, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Cornell all tumble in our rankings because of their inadequate commitment to social mobility.
Several Washington, D.C.-area institutions have particularly low ranking scores. George Washington University barely cracks the top 100 at number ninety-four, American University comes in at number 114, and Catholic University falls all the way to number 268, one of the worst in the nation. All three private universities charge unusually high tuition, even after accounting for financial aid, enroll relatively few low-income students, and have graduation rates lower than statistics suggest they should. This is what public universities are evolving toward if their public character continues to erode.
Our ranking of liberal arts colleges also uncovers institutions that excel in surprising ways. Bryn Mawr is ranked first for the second year in a row, reflecting a broad pattern of women’s colleges dedicated to scholarship and service. In addition to graduating nearly all of its students and making important contributions to research, Bryn Mawr spends a higher percentage of work-study money on service than any other liberal arts college in America, and ranks near the top in sending students to the Peace Corps and promoting service for students and faculty. The college’s balance of high academic standards and commitment to research and service stands out.
Carleton College in Minnesota rises to number two this year, on the strength of the fourth-highest number of graduates who went on to earn PhDs. Number three Berea College continues its remarkable policy of charging no tuition to a student body of first-generation college students. More than a quarter of students attending twelfth-ranked Knox College in Illinois, site of a recent economic policy speech from President Barack Obama, are eligible for Pell Grants. The college has a strong service commitment, and four in five students graduate within six years.
Nearly all the well-known higher education institutions in America are research universities and liberal arts colleges. These institutions compete nationally for students and serve as entryways into the corridors of power. But most college students don’t go near such places. Instead, they attend so-called master’s and baccalaureate institutions that accept the large majority of applicants and draw most of their students from their local region. Some achieve results that far outstrip their better-known peers.
Two historically black institutions—Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Tuskegee University in Alabama—top our ranking of baccalaureate institutions. Elizabeth City reports an average net price of only $909, enrolls a student body that is 80 percent low income, and helps nearly half of them graduate on time. Tuskegee, which has strengths in architecture, engineering, and veterinary medicine, tops all baccalaureate universities nationwide in research.
Truman State University in Missouri, the third-ranked master’s university, is in the top thirty nationwide in both the percentage of graduates who enter the Peace Corps and those who serve in ROTC. It also sends large numbers of undergraduates on to successfully complete PhDs. Truman State is unusually successful in not just graduating students but also preparing them to make lasting contributions to society. It does this for a net price of roughly $12,000 per year, much less than the private institutions that are similarly ranked.
A New Federalism
The Washington Monthly’s college guide demonstrates that it’s possible to serve a variety of public interests and provide a great college experience at the same time. The challenge is to ensure that the tides of reputational pressure, financial incentive, and regulatory policy push more colleges in this direction, not the opposite. Only one body has the influence and resources to accomplish this goal: the federal government.
For the most part, colleges have not reacted to state austerity by trimming their financial sails, despite years of growing administrative budgets. According to the nonprofit Delta Cost Project, public research universities held education and related expenditures about flat from 2009 to 2010, in the teeth of severe state budget cuts. Instead, they mostly replaced lost state dollars with tuition hikes. Because family income fell during that time for the same reasons state revenues dropped, people had less in their pockets to pay even as colleges were charging more. Federal financial aid programs made up the difference, including a tripling of the Pell Grant program’s annual appropriation to nearly $40 billion, and an expansion of federal student lending to $100 billion per year. Credit extended by Uncle Sam is providing the last dollars into the American higher education system, the money that keeps our engines of knowledge production and advanced teaching from seizing up. This is on top of billions in research funding.
But the relationship between the federal government, states, and institutions has not caught up with this new fiscal reality. Federal lawmakers continue to tiptoe around higher education policy, unwilling to offend local college presidents who insist that the principles of academic autonomy entitle them to an unlimited supply of federal money, no questions asked. In other areas of strong national interest and federal investment, like health care, there is broad consensus that organizations dependent on taxpayer support must serve the public interest. Only higher education has managed to exempt itself from this commonsense principle. This is an abnormality the nation can no longer afford.
President Obama has spoken at length about the need to provide more useful public information about how successful colleges are in helping students learn, graduate, and get jobs. He is right about this, and the Monthly has been calling for such information for many years. But behavioral science tells us that simply making data available is not enough to influence consumer and university behavior to the necessary degree. Graduation rates broken down by race and gender have been publicly available for nearly a decade, and yet people continue to enroll at universities like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (see Jamaal Abdul-Alim, “Dropouts Tell No Tales,”), despite the fact that it routinely graduates fewer than one in five black men who enroll.
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