September/October 2012 Introduction

A Different Kind of College Ranking

By The Editors

Making College Cheaper and Better
Washington Monthly/New America event held 10/3/2012

In the last twelve months, public anxiety about student debt has reached a boiling point. The Occupy protests that began in 2011 included large numbers of unemployed young college graduates with five-figure indentures to the higher education-banking complex. In recent months, total outstanding student loan debt topped $1 trillion, more than Americans owe on credit cards.

Congressional hearings and calls for massive debt forgiveness marked a growing realization that higher education’s three-decade binge of tuition hikes—during which college prices tripled after inflation—has degraded the bargain society strikes with its young people. In the not-so-distant past, most undergraduates could rely on a combination of work and parental support to get a bachelor’s degree debt free. No longer. Today nearly two-thirds of undergraduates leave college with debt averaging more than $25,000. In more extreme cases, twenty-one-year-olds are burdened with six-figure obligations, in the worst job market in decades.

As a nation, we are inadvertently conducting a grand social experiment in which a new generation of young people is starting life attached to a financial ball and chain. Americans have long looked to higher education as a source of social mobility and public good. Increasingly, it is becoming something much different, and much worse: a narrowing aperture of opportunity through which only the children of the wealthy emerge unscathed.

But you wouldn’t know it by reading the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings. That well-known list actually rewards colleges for spending more money, raising prices, and shutting out all but the most privileged students. While the college cost crisis has many causes, including stingy state legislatures and institutions that have resisted becoming more cost-effective, the relentless chase for status is undeniably driving prices up. There’s nothing wrong with rankings per se—colleges need outside scrutiny and students need information to make choices in a complicated market. But rankings that push individual colleges to heedlessly raise prices help precipitate a collective crisis that threatens to undermine institutions that are vital to the nation’s future prosperity and civic life.

That’s why, since 2005, the Washington Monthly has published rankings that pose a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? (Check out the rankings here.) After all, higher education matters to more than just the people who attend. We all benefit when university researchers produce groundbreaking research in science, medicine, and technology.

We’re all affected by the productivity of our knowledge workers and the integrity of our college-educated leaders. And we all pay for it through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies to higher education, costs that are rapidly increasing in response to tuition increases that never seem to end.

The Washington Monthly rankings are based on three factors. The first is social mobility, which gives colleges credit for enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees. The second recognizes research production, particularly at schools whose undergraduates go on to earn PhDs. Third, we value a commitment to service. The more expensive college becomes, the more students are encouraged to see higher education as a mere return on investment. The students in our best colleges are taught by example and design to look beyond themselves and give back.

And because the cost of higher education has become so crucial, we have added a new factor to our college rankings this year. The social mobility measure that rewards colleges with better-than-expected graduation rates has been improved to account for college prices. Colleges that are both effective and inexpensive get the highest marks. As Robert Kelchen and Rachel Fishman explain in more detail here, some institutions are doing an outstanding job while keeping prices low at the same time, helping students earn valuable diplomas without being shackled by debt. The complete list of our national university rankings begins on page 54, liberal arts colleges on page 68, and master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges on page 80. Some of the names are familiar. But others show that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces surprising results. Some famous (and expensive) colleges that routinely top the U.S. News rankings fare poorly by our lights, while some far less costly institutions are providing huge benefits to their students and their nation. Here are highlights from the 2012 Washington Monthly college rankings.

Public Trust

When the U.S. News rankings were first published in the 1980s, some public universities ranked near the top. But over time, publics have been overtaken by private institutions working from a standard playbook: spend more, charge more, and cater almost exclusively to the rich and upper-upper-middle class. Our national rankings, by contrast, are far more hospitable to what sometimes seems like an endangered species: accessible, affordable, high-quality public universities. The University of California, San Diego is, as in 2011, our top-ranked national university. Six of our top twenty universities hail from the UC system, a testament to their commitment to enroll an economically diverse student body while supporting world-class research. Tragically, the system has been rocked by budget cuts and price increases in recent years. We hope this trend is reversed before the UC campuses fade from prominence.

Well-known private universities, by contrast, look different when judged by our criteria. Yale is only forty-first on our ranking. New York University, which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt, is seventy-seventh. NYU ranked thirty-three places higher in 2011, but our new cost-adjustment measure penalizes it for being among the most expensive universities in America. Similarly, Northeastern University in Boston has climbed eighty-eight places in the U.S. News rankings since 2001, all the way to sixty-second, within shouting distance of the coveted “First Tier.” We rank Northeastern number 237, in the bottom 20 percent of all national universities. Why? Because Northeastern doesn’t enroll very many low-income students, graduates fewer students than it should, and is unusually expensive. Most national universities are better than Northeastern at graduating students who go on to earn PhDs, and the university’s faculty research awards and service statistics are mediocre. Universities that purchase a facade of greatness are recognized by U.S. News , but not by us.

Liberal Values

The Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.


  • Fuji on August 29, 2012 3:27 PM:

    You list Atlantic Union #11 in your Massachusetts list. I believe they are not a degree granting institution. I believe they lost their accreditation in 2011. You may want to update your list.

  • Fuji on August 29, 2012 3:31 PM:

    You list Atlantic Union #11 in your Massachusetts list. I believe they are not a degree granting institution. I believe they lost their accreditation in 2011. You may want to update your list.