September/October 2011 Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

By The Editors

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.

Better Measures

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.

The Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.


  • Rodolfo Baquerizo on August 30, 2011 10:02 PM:

    What a joke!

  • Chris Phung on September 01, 2011 6:38 PM:

    u mad?

  • JD on September 03, 2011 1:30 AM:

    he's mad

  • Lee on September 03, 2011 6:27 PM:

    This ranking is comparable to the other college ranking guides. In ninety percent of colleges, students are not learning and there is no credible way to judge colleges. One should be wary of all colleges . The public is stupid and will believe anything they read in USNews, Forbes, and The Princeton Review. Alas, one must go with the name even if students are not learning anything in the place!

  • UC Student on September 04, 2011 11:44 AM:

    Any metric that puts Riverside as the fifth best school in the country is awful. Speak with anyone actually attending Riverside and they'll explain why.

  • Small School Student on September 05, 2011 1:22 PM:

    It seems to me that there's a reason a lot of big public schools are up at the top of your list. Giant schools usually have only 20-30% of their population contributing to great service, research, etc., and the rest of it is just there to rake in cash for profit and to support that 20-30%.

    Your ranking system seems to reward such large schools and punish the small private, often more "efficiently" run institutions. Distinguished faculty ought to be ranked by the number out of total faculty, research money should be a density index divided by an appropriate denominator, etc.

  • Small School Student on September 05, 2011 1:27 PM:

    *I should add that at small schools, the faculty tend to be less prestigious precisely because they have less total money, resources etc. I realize that you use percentage of total faculty for those ranks, but these numbers are all correlated to the absolute amount of money a school has which is largely a function of its undergraduate and graduate student body size.

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  • UC Riverside Alumn on September 07, 2011 7:32 PM:

    UC Student... did you go to UCR?
    UCR is an amazing school and has always been so underrated.
    It is about time people start saying good things about it.

  • UCR Supporter on September 07, 2011 7:52 PM:

    "UC Student," if you actually look at the system and see why they scored the school so high, you'd understand. If the system was location, yeah, maybe it would score low. But the campus is beautiful, the people are amazing, and the students/staff/faculty are actually doing something productive for the world around them, hence the high scoring (and #1 ranking for community service hours logged). The people that complain about Riverside don't deserve to go there.

  • Highlander on September 07, 2011 9:51 PM:

    Glad to see so many UC's up top, especially UCR - finally getting some recognition. Looking forward to the completion of the med school!

    Schools are judged by their location, that's the way it is.. I picked UCR over UCI, and now I'm at UCSD. The only reason I wouldn't recommend UCR is due to the hierarchy within UC's, and how employers view the 'R' against 'LA' or 'SD'

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  • UCR Student on September 08, 2011 8:04 PM:

    Woo about time we got recognized!!! We have been underrated for quite a while. Makes me feel proud to be a Highlander, ( and have some haters ;) )

  • Cleo on September 09, 2011 2:07 PM:

    It doesn't matter what this publication reports. No one in New York will give much credence to a degree from a California uni. They don't care if Berkeley is ranked above the Ivy League schools because it sounds like hippy dippy lets sue the boss for maternity leave for men to them.

    And as for the rest except the Ivy-SOUNDING Stanford, forget it. NY has the highest salaries, the most competitive job market and Cali school just look like shit to them.

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  • Konsequenzen on September 16, 2011 3:00 AM:

    "UC Student," if you actually look at the system and see why they scored the school so high, you'd understand. If the system was location, yeah, maybe it would score low. But the campus is beautiful,
    toshiba akku the people are amazing, and the students/staff/faculty are actually doing something productive for the world around them, hence the high scoring (and #1 ranking for community service hours logged). The people that complain about Riverside don't deserve to go there.

  • Cal grad on December 31, 2011 3:48 AM:

    Hey Cleo, I graduated from Berkeley and am now getting a JD and an MBA at Columbia--one of your beloved ivy league universities. I can tell you first hand that big law partners in NYC were more impressed by my Berkeley degree than by either of my Columbia degrees, and that the SF legal market is more competitive than the NYC market. I can also tell you that you are a f****ng idiot, and most likely a huge d-bag. Go Bears!

  • ucr student on January 03, 2012 5:37 PM:

    i'll support "uc student's" post, just look at the 65% graduation rate, as a student of UCR I am so frustrated with the schools system. I cannot graduate on time not because of falling behind in classes, but because upper division courses for my major (political science), and many other majors, are only offered certain quarters and unless you're a fourth or fifth year, you will not receive priority for those classes, forcing my to take courses that I don't need in order to receive the financial aid necessary to pay for tuition.

  • UCR Alum on January 03, 2012 7:22 PM:

    ucr student is misappropriating the blame for his enrollment fiasco. Education funds have been cut, therefore, it is reasonable that schools will have to find ways of coping with this crisis. As a freshman student and even as a second year I did not have that problem, however, by the time I graduated I had felt that pressure building. It is unfair to blame the institution for problems such as these. It is a public institution that relies on grants from the government to continue running.Hence, if the government is in the dumps (fiscally speaking) the beneficiaries that rely on grants for funding will ultimately be affected. I do not believe that this issue reflects poorly on the expertise of our professors nor the quality of our education. On the contrary, because I chose to attended UCR as an undergraduate, I was able to work closely with faculty as an undergrad, I was able to get published, and ultimately was able to go study law at a top law school. If anything, my education at UCR opened up the opportunities available to me today.

  • UCR BIEN on January 04, 2012 11:24 AM:

    I think this is great. UCR is a great school and many people fail to see that based on the fact other schools have lower acceptance rate. The truth of the matter is we have Harvard level professors and top notch students and we will eventually be known as a great school across the nation. It is about time that the general public realizes this.

  • UC Riverside Senior on January 04, 2012 12:28 PM:

    Clearly UC Student is an idiot. UC Riverside is an amazing school and has been for years. The only problems that it has are the problems that are forced upon it by UC regents.

    The UC system is under a lot of pressure and has had to make a lot of very difficult decisions. I may not agree with them but I will agree that UCR is one of the best schools in the country.

  • Angel on January 05, 2012 12:18 AM:

    Congrats to UCR about time

  • The San Diegan on January 19, 2012 2:54 AM:

    Why is everyone from NY so jealous about everything in California? "We make more money"...who cares?? Not everyone cares ONLY about money, maybe people prefer to earn little less money to live by the sea instead of under the snow. And by this ranking and the comments here, we clearly see that the brightest minds from USA and the whole world picked California instead of NY...let the "hippies" be happy.. :)

  • Okay... on January 24, 2012 1:09 AM:

    I get that you're all going to love your school, but UCR just isn't a #5 school no matter which way you swing it I'm sure.

  • UCLA Alum on January 25, 2012 2:55 PM:

    While I appreciate the points made about traditional rankings, I can hardly see how a ranking system based on something as subjective as contributions to the public or national good is any less flawed. Moreover, the belief that pumping more subsidies into higher education is generally a good thing is naive and short-sighted. It is precisely those policies that have led not just to abuses by for-profit colleges (abuse fueled in part by the influx of such aid) but to abuses by "non-profit" colleges and universities, where there is a perverse incentive to inflate tuitions. Why has so much energy been focused on greater access to student aid/loans and so little on what has caused the high cost of American higher education?

  • kremlinoncharles on May 01, 2012 11:18 PM:

    this is stupid, i feel stupider after having read this, and this article is a detriment to humanity.

  • Hahahahahah on May 04, 2012 12:35 AM:

    If the list really is based on social (i.e upward) mobility as stated in the fifth paragraph, then I agree with it. The reason those top Ivy's would not rank on this list is that they are private (thus, expensive) and very, very selective. The UC's, especially UCR, are not only public universities, but also much, much less selective. Anybody who performed some semblance of "well" in high school can get into UCR.

    Upward mobility begins with higher education, and UCR certainly doesn't tend to bar people from it. Hell, they gave me a Regent's scholarship and I wasn't even looking for one. Also, the list generally follows the trend of which UC's most students would pick over other UC's.

    The list makes sense in a very specific parameter, but I still expect the world beaters to be coming out of US News' top 25.

  • ^the guy above on May 04, 2012 12:38 AM:

    Might be important for me to note that I do not go to UCR.