Our ranking of the best liberal arts colleges shows how small institutions built around a particular historical mission can thrive in the modern world. This year, the number one spot was earned by Berea College, a tuition-free institution in Kentucky that was founded by abolitionists and has a mission of enrolling low-income students. Eighty percent of Berea students receive federal Pell Grants, a level of student poverty that at other, lesser colleges and universities would result in graduation rates in the mid-teens. At Berea, by contrast, nearly two-thirds of students graduate on time and a healthy number go on to earn PhDs.
Historically black and single-gender colleges continue to rank well by our measures, as they have in years past. Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta rank number two and number four, respectively, while Bryn Mawr is number three. Dillard and Fisk Universities—both historically black, and both lower tier according to
U.S. News—make our top twenty-five. Reed College in Oregon has an iconoclastic reputation and doesn’t emphasize grades. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take academics seriously. Reed enrolls only 1,400 undergraduates, compared to the tens of thousands at a typical public university. Yet, in 2009, almost as many newly granted PhDs were awarded to Reed alumni as were given to graduates of the University of Oregon or Oregon State.
Pushing the gigantic ocean liner that is the American higher education system onto a new course won’t be easy. The Obama administration will encounter fierce resistance from institutions that have long enjoyed generous tax subsidies, financial aid revenue, and research support with very little accountability for results. And to be sure, President Obama won’t reach his goals by regulating the higher education sector into submission. Instead, he needs to create new terms of prestige that will make colleges want to focus their resources and interests on serving the public interest.
That’s what our rankings aim to provide. Everyone knows that colleges change their policies to climb the U.S. News ladder by rejecting more student applications, hounding alumni for donations, and spending lavish sums on attention-getting buildings and star faculty hires. Imagine if they applied similar ingenuity to the task of improving community service, preparing undergraduates for careers in the sciences, and helping low-income students earn degrees. Colleges that have no chance of climbing the U.S. News status ladder would receive long-overdue recognition, while institutions that have selfishly hoarded their resources would face new pressure to give back.
There are, moreover, ways to make our rankings—and, thus, the pressure on colleges—more effective still. Research published earlier this year by the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that more than a third of students learn little or nothing in four-year colleges between the time they enroll as freshmen and when they graduate as seniors. To reach these findings, Arum and Roksa used a well-regarded test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication skills called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. For years, this magazine has called on more colleges to use instruments like the CLA—and, crucially, to publicly release the results. The response has been less than enthusiastic. It’s not necessary to publish results, colleges assure us: Learning is fine, they say; nothing to see here! Arum and Roksa’s research shows definitively, however, that all is not well in undergraduate education. Policymakers should demand that colleges taking public money publish comparable, rankable measures of student learning results in exchange.
There are also a number of new ways to calculate another crucial college outcome: how much money students earn in the job market after they graduate. As Erin Dillon describes on page 57, a great deal of new information about postcollegiate earnings is becoming available from government and private sources. As with our service, mobility, and research measures, ranking colleges based on how much money students earn for their tuition dollars yields intriguing results. Some lesser-known schools are doing a stellar job preparing students for careers, while some amazingly expensive colleges are not.
If reputations rise and fall based on student learning results, then colleges will have incentives to base faculty tenure on teaching, not just research. If university presidents get good press from graduating more low-income students, they’ll spend more financial aid money on the needy, rather than using it to buy students with higher SATs. If striving parents compete for the prestige of getting their children into colleges that emphasize service, more college graduates will enter careers that serve the common good. The end result would be a more democratic, equitable, and prosperous nation. That should rank high on President Obama’s agenda in the coming years.
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