September/October 2012 Introduction

A Different Kind of College Ranking

By The Editors

Our ranking of liberal arts colleges also reveals institutions that stand out in unconventional ways. Bryn Mawr is ranked first this year, continuing a long tradition of women’s colleges serving their country. Berea College in Kentucky is ranked third, far above its U.S. News position, because it enrolls a predominantly low-income student population and charges no tuition. Most colleges with 90 percent of students eligible for Pell Grants struggle to graduate even half of their students; at Berea nearly two-thirds finish in a reasonable amount of time. Tougaloo College, a small, private, historically black institution in Mississippi, has struggled financially in recent years. But it continues to enroll large numbers of low-income students, graduate more of them than expected, and keep prices low. Tougaloo also ranks above better-known colleges in research, helping to put the college in the top twenty on our rankings. The Johnnies of St. John’s College in Maryland (number nineteen) remain proudly independent, sticking to a “Great Books” curriculum even as many colleges eschew any curriculum at all. It’s not for everyone, which is probably why the college’s 73 percent graduation rate, while respectable, is still slightly below par. But those who remain go on to earn PhDs at a rate far beyond their numbers, and the college’s success in sending graduates into the Peace Corps is just as impressive. St. John’s also has a campus in New Mexico, which, for very similar reasons, ranks second on our list of master’s universities.

Everyday Excellence

Research universities and liberal arts colleges that draw students from across the nation get the lion’s share of attention from the media. But huge numbers of students attend regional, master’s-granting universities and colleges that focus on job-related fields along with the liberal arts. The best of them give far more to their country than do their more prominent peers. Elizabeth City State University, a public, historically black institution in North Carolina, tops our ranking of baccalaureate institutions. Tuskegee University, another historically black college, comes in at number three. Both enroll large numbers of low-income students and graduate more of them than statistics predict. Elizabeth City is extremely affordable, with one of the lowest reported net prices in the nation. Tuskegee maintains a strong pipeline into the ROTC program, and tops all but a handful of peers in research. Converse College, an economically diverse all-female liberal arts college in South Carolina, is our third-ranked master’s institution, by virtue of its strong commitment to service and record of graduating women who go on to earn PhDs.

Better Measures

The larger the cost of college grows, the more important it becomes for college graduates to find well-paying jobs that allow them to pay back their loans. Since 2006, the Washington Monthly has been advocating for public officials to publish employment results for individual colleges, such as average earnings among graduates one, three, and five years after leaving college, and the percentage of students who land jobs in their fields of study.

College is about more than getting a job, of course. At its best, higher education helps produce a more enlightened, humane citizenry. But most students go after a degree because they know the modern economy affords few opportunities for a good career without one. When they choose colleges, they should know which institutions are most likely to help them succeed. And the cost of generating these measures is trivial—state and federal labor agencies already keep track of earnings in order to calculate unemployment insurance, enforce child support orders, and distribute Social Security benefits. The biggest barrier to giving students information about college success in the employment arena is colleges themselves, whose lobbyists have opposed attempts to publish the data and often refuse to comply with employment disclosure regulations that are already on the books. Some colleges aren’t doing a good job training their students for the workforce, and they’d rather nobody knew it.

That veil of secrecy took a major blow this summer, when the U.S. Department of Education released the first results from its effort to crack down on abusive for-profit colleges. The so-called “gainful employment” regulations rate college programs on the percentage of graduates who are repaying their loans and the ratio of student debt to student earnings.

The earnings data comes from the Social Security Administration. At little cost, the federal government was able, for the first time, to provide comprehensive, comparable measures of a critical higher education outcome for colleges nationwide.The next step should be to expand this effort to all programs, for-profit and nonprofit. That doesn’t mean we should regulate them in the same way—philosophy majors are clearly looking for something different than people who enroll in culinary school. But as the stakes in choosing a college grow higher and the array of options in the marketplace grows more diverse and confusing, it’s critically important to arm students and parents with as much information as possible to make an informed choice, and to hold colleges accountable for results.

President Obama took a step in this direction in January, during the State of the Union address, when he said, “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition. We’ll run out of money.” He called on states to stop slashing higher education budgets, but was clear that colleges were culpable, too: “So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.” Accompanying materials from the White House noted that “the President is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.”

The key word is value. Paying a lot of money for college might be a good idea if the student gets a great education in return. A cheap college might not be a bargain. The problem is that nobody really knows what college students are getting in return, because information about how much they learn and earn is being suppressed by colleges that are scared to be held accountable for the quality of their work. The only plausible long-term solution to the college cost crisis is more value competition in the marketplace, and that can’t happen if value information doesn’t exist.

President Obama’s proposal died a quiet death in the Senate a few months ago, a testament to the power of the higher education lobby. That’s to be expected—it took decades to reform health care, and the struggle continues. But in the long run, colleges and universities won’t be able to hide from information. And when that information becomes available, we’ll be first in line to use it on the nation’s behalf.

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.