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

By The Editors

A few months ago, the Obama administration completed a remarkably successful run of sticking it to large corporations that make a profit in higher education. First, as part of the omnibus legislation that produced the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Obama pushed through a wholesale reform of the student loan industry, taking away tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to private banks and using the money to increase financial aid for low-income students. Then, in 2011, Obama stamped down on the excesses of for-profit colleges that have been raking in billions of dollars from federal financial aid programs while leaving students with low-value degrees and crushing debt. Under the administration’s controversial “gainful employment” rules, finalized in June, colleges whose graduates don’t earn enough money in the job market to pay back their loans will lose federal aid, a penalty that will effectively shut those colleges down.

These are exactly the kind of progressive, pro-student reforms Obama was elected to enact. But they also lead to a question: What’s next? In his first address to Congress, the president set a bold goal of regaining the international lead in college graduation by 2020. But only 10 percent of students attend for-profit colleges, and Obama’s loan reforms, while admirable, aren’t going to have a significant effect on the number of people who ultimately earn a college degree. Meanwhile, the latest research suggests that many students in traditional colleges aren’t learning very much, even as tuition is rising out of sight.

For a Democratic president, battling big business is the easy part. If Obama’s 2020 goal is going to become more than an empty slogan, he’s going to have to do something considerably harder: take on the entrenched interests in the traditional public and nonprofit higher education sector and get them to do more on behalf of students and the public. That means defining what, exactly, a public-minded college should do.

We believe that the Washington Monthly college rankings provide an excellent answer to that question. Conventional rankings like those published by U.S. News & World Report are designed to show what colleges can do for you. Since 2005, our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, isn’t just important for undergraduates. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they offer students from low-income families the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies. Everyone has a stake in how that money is spent.

That’s why one-third of each college’s score on our rankings is based on social mobility: How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? Our second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to PhDs. Finally, we give great weight to service. It’s not enough to help students look out for themselves. The best colleges encourage students to give something back.

Our full rankings for national universities are here, liberal art colleges are here are here. Master’s universities are here and baccalaureate colleges are here. It turns out that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces some surprising results. Well-known colleges that are routinely lauded by U.S. News fare much worse when ranked according to what they do for the country. On the other hand, colleges that are routinely lost in the bottom tiers of the U.S. News rankings are top performers on our list. Here are some of the highlights of the 2011 Washington Monthly college rankings:

Public Citizens

Public universities have been battered by state budget cuts in recent years even as the most elite private institutions have been insulated by admissions selectivity and endowments containing vast piles of taxpayer-subsidized cash. Since the U.S. News rankings are mostly a matter of wealth and exclusivity, it’s not surprising that there is not a single public institution among their top twenty universities. But despite their financial woes, twelve of our twenty highest-rated universities are public, including the top-ranked University of California, San Diego. Six of the eight campuses in the UC system land among our best-ranked universities, a testament to California’s historic commitment to institutions that combine world-class research and access for low-income students. While the UC system’s continued dominance shows that it takes a while to grind a great university system down, we fear that the Golden State’s ongoing disinvestment in higher education (the UC budget has been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2007) will eventually diminish the best public universities in the world.

Some well-known private universities, by contrast, are nowhere near the top of our rankings. Yale shows up at number thirty-nine, Dartmouth at number seventy-four, and Washington University in St. Louis is all the way down at number 112. Wash U managed to climb to number thirteen on the U.S. News rankings in recent decades, knocking on the door of the Ivy League. But its service commitment is substandard, and its economic diversity is abysmal—only 6 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants. Wash U appears to be more focused on itself than on everyone else.

Some public universities, by contrast, stand out for their commitment to helping first-generation students get ahead. Jackson State and South Carolina State are both historically black universities that fare poorly on conventional rankings because they enroll a lot of students from low-income backgrounds who don’t always have stellar SATs. But precisely because they help so many of those students achieve, they’re number nine and number eighteen, respectively, on our list.

Learning Service

One of the dangers of charging ever-higher tuition, as colleges have been doing for years, is that it can snuff out the natural altruism students often feel at that point in their lives. It’s hard to think about serving your country or community when you’re worried about servicing your student loans. But some colleges do make a conscious effort to emphasize larger obligations. Case Western Reserve is a well-known Ohio research university that shows up at a respectable number forty-one on the U.S. News rankings. It vaults all the way to number seven on our list due to an unusual commitment to service: Case Western students go into the Peace Corps in high numbers, the university spends a significant amount of work-study money on service, and it reports high levels of service participation by students and faculty. Texas A&M, number sixty-three on the U.S. News ranking, reached fifteenth place on our list with the help of the highest ROTC participation rate of any national university.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, Princeton (whose slogan is, ironically, “In the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations”) scores near the bottom of our service list. That’s because of low service-hour numbers (Princeton didn’t report data on service hours, whereas Stanford reported twenty hours and UCLA reported seventy-two), along with poor ROTC and Peace Corps participation.

Liberal Lions

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.