Special Report

September/October 2011 America’s Best Master’s Universities and Baccalaureate Colleges

By Erin Dillon

In the 130 years since it was founded, Tuskegee University has earned a notable place in the annals of higher education. Booker T. Washington was its first president. George Washington Carver taught there for forty years. It was where the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II trained. And it has produced a steady stream of accomplished alumni, including the novelist Ralph Ellison, the actor Keenan Ivory Wayans, and the musician Lionel Richie.

To this list of high honors, Tuskegee can now claim an additional, if more modest, one: it is first in this year’s Washington Monthly rankings of baccalaureate colleges. With 67 percent of its students receiving Pell Grants and a graduation rate 7 percentage points higher than predicted, Tuskegee ranks eleventh on our social mobility measure among baccalaureate colleges. It ranks second in the proportion of its students participating in ROTC. Its total research expenditures are more than double those of the next-highest college, and it is twenty-first in the percentage of graduates going on to get their PhD.

Yet when most people think of America’s top colleges, Tuskegee might not come to mind. Part of the reason is the category, “baccalaureate college,” to which it is relegated by the nonprofit Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The term refers to schools that focus on undergraduate education but offer fewer than half of their degrees in the liberal arts. Any organization that ranks schools based on Carnegie’s widely followed classification scheme—as do U.S. News & World Report and the Washington Monthly—is obliged to evaluate baccalaureate colleges in a separate category. But that makes it hard to tell how the best of those schools compete with better-known national universities and liberal arts colleges.

U.S. News makes drawing comparisons even more difficult by breaking up its ranking of baccalaureate colleges (which the magazine now calls “regional colleges”) into four separate regional groupings: North, South, West, and Midwest. Tuskegee ranks number five among “regional colleges” in the South. The publication gives the same treatment to “master’s universities,” a Carnegie classification encompassing schools that offer a range of undergraduate and some master’s-level programs but few doctoral degrees. How does the best master’s university in the Midwest stack up against the second best in the North? U.S. News won’t tell you.

So when we decided to rank master’s and baccalaureate institutions for the first time last year, we avoided U.S. News’s regional categories. We also, of course, evaluated the schools based on our own criteria (service, social mobility, and research) rather than those of U.S. News (fame, exclusivity, and money). Not surprisingly, there are some big differences in the results.

St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, with high rankings in both social mobility and service, takes the number two spot among master’s universities in our rankings this year but comes in at nineteenth among regional universities in the West according to U.S. News. Alfred University, a private college in upstate New York, places eighth in our ranking of master’s universities but twentieth among U.S. News’s ranking of regional universities in the North. And Unity College, a small private college in Maine that calls itself “America’s Environmental College,” ranks first in service among baccalaureate colleges and seventeenth overall, but goes unranked altogether by U.S. News.

Like Tuskegee, other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) get lost in the U.S. News rankings but do well on ours. Xavier University in Louisiana, for example, ranks twenty-second among regional universities in the South according to U.S. News, but places eleventh among master’s universities on our rankings. Xavier’s high rating is due to a strong showing on our social mobility and research measures, including a ninth-place ranking for students who go on to get their PhD. This shouldn’t be surprising— Xavier produces the largest number of African American medical school applicants in the country. North Carolina’s Elizabeth City State University ranks fifth among our baccalaureate colleges, with a strong showing across all three of our ranking categories, but places twenty-second among U.S. News’s regional colleges in the South. Twelve of our top fifty baccalaureate colleges are HBCUs—five of those are unranked in U.S. News and only one, Tuskegee, makes it into the top ten in its region.

We were still left wondering how our top master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges would compare to the national universities and liberal arts colleges. So, after making a slight adjustment in the rankings to account for the lack of PhD programs at baccalaureate and master’s universities, we added our top ten baccalaureate colleges and top ten master’s universities to our national universities and liberal arts rankings to see how the rankings would change. We found that the best of the master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges compete quite well. Five master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges made the top thirty among national universities, and six placed in the top thirty among liberal arts colleges, including little-known institutions like Keuka College and Elizabeth City State University. St. Mary’s University came in eighth overall among national universities due to its strong social mobility and service scores—just above the University of Chicago. And Tuskegee ranked sixth among liberal arts colleges and twenty-sixth among national universities, beating out schools like Amherst College and the University of Pennsylvania.

Other schools shined on individual measures. Our number five master’s university, the University of Portland, for example, placed second among national universities in the number of its alumni joining the Peace Corps, just behind American University in Washington, D.C. And Cooper Union in New York City ranked fifteenth among national universities in the percentage of students going on to get their PhD, beating out its New York City neighbor Columbia University.

Despite its storied history and strong record of research and service, Tuskegee University does not get the same recognition or front-page coverage of many of the national universities or liberal arts colleges. But the school, and the many other successful master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges on our list, deserve the same attention for their ability to serve their students, and the country, well.

Erin Dillon is a senior policy analyst at Education sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Comments

  • d thompson on August 29, 2011 4:00 PM:

    "shined"? or "shone"
    I think you'll find it's the latter.