September/October 2014 Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

By The Editors

To see our full list of rankings, click here.

Last August, President Barack Obama traveled to the State University of New York at Buffalo to give a speech about higher education. It began with the usual tributes to college as a pillar of American opportunity and economic renewal. “A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” the president said, repeating a message that most students have heard, ad nauseam, for their entire lives.

But then Obama’s tone changed. He reflected on his own experience as a college debtor, how he and his wife had been making loan payments into their forties, when they should have been saving for retirement and their own children’s education. How previous generations had made a compact with the future by financing affordable colleges, a commitment that budget-cutting states were in the process of tearing down. How students were being forced to choose between a life without a college diploma and college debt they can’t afford to repay.

The solution, the president said, was something unprecedented in the history of national higher education policy: a new federal rating system.

“We’re going to start rating colleges,” said Obama, “not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities—you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

This was welcome news at the Washington Monthly, since we’ve been publishing just such a ranking since 2005. In 2012, we even added in a special “bang for the buck” measure.

Our rankings have always rejected the idea that expense, luxury, and exclusivity should be held up as the highest values for colleges and students to aspire to. Instead, we ask a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, doesn’t just affect students. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they put students from lower-income families on 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 government-financed financial aid, tax breaks, and other spending.

To identify the most public-minded institutions, we rank every four-year college and university in America based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of crediting colleges that reject the most applicants, we recognize those that do the best job of enrolling and graduating low-income students. Our rankings measure both pure research spending and success in preparing undergraduates to earn PhDs. And by giving equal weight to public service, we identify colleges that build a sense of obligation to their communities and the nation at large.

The complete list of our national university rankings is here, the liberal arts colleges are here, and the master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges are here and 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 the U.S. News & World Report fare much worse when ranked according to what they do for the country. On the other hand, colleges that are routinely buried in the bottom tiers of the U.S. News rankings are top performers on our list. Here are some of the highlights of the 2014 Washington Monthly college rankings.

Public Interest

On the U.S. News list, all the top twenty universities are private, as are nearly all the top colleges. This is by design: under that magazine’s metrics, schools get ahead based on the number of students they don’t admit, and private schools are the most selective. Public institutions that serve a wide range of students fare much better by our measures. Fourteen of our twenty highest-ranked universities are taxpayer supported.

Strikingly, four of the top five institutions on our list are University of California campuses. That state’s system has a distinct blend of size, diversity, and research excellence. By enrolling top students from a huge state with a highly varied population, UC campuses are able to balance academic excellence with scientific prowess and a commitment to enrolling low-income students that is unmatched at similar national universities.

The UC campus in Riverside, ranked number two this year, stands out as a model for other public universities to follow. Riverside falls below most of its system peers by conventional measures. It’s not part of the ultra-exclusive Association of American Universities. It doesn’t enroll students with SAT scores so high that their graduation is all but guaranteed. Instead, Riverside is unusually focused on social mobility. Since 2006, its enrollment has grown by 25 percent. Half of all freshmen are first-generation college students, and the campus is the most racially and ethnically diverse within the UC system. Riverside’s focus on public service exceeds that of almost every other national university.

Other universities that, like Riverside, enroll a majority of students eligible for the federal Pell Grant program while graduating substantially larger numbers of students than similar institutions include the University of Texas at El Paso and Florida International University. Both are ranked much higher by our criteria than by conventional, status-obsessed rankings. Georgia Tech, a highly respected public engineering school, has a net price of less than $8,500 per year, a bargain compared to other public schools whose tuition nears $20,000.

While some private universities are highly rated by our criteria, they don’t dominate the upper echelon of the Monthly list. Many of them are ignoring their obligations, as tax-exempt institutions, to promote the public welfare. Catholic University in Washington, D.C., takes an uncharitable approach to college pricing, for example, with only 13 percent of students eligible for Pell Grants and an astonishing average net price of nearly $35,000. It ranks 264th on our list. George Mason, a libertarian-tinged public university in Virginia, has, perhaps unsurprisingly, terrible public service numbers. Few graduates go on to earn PhDs. It ranks 210th.

Other big research universities rank higher because of their contributions to scholarship, but still lag behind their vaunted conventional reputations. Brown, Northwestern, Georgetown, Boston College, Boston University, Indiana University, and Clemson all fail to crack our top 100 national universities.

Liberal Learning

Our liberal arts college ranking also reveals institutions that excel in surprising ways. Bryn Mawr comes in first for the third consecutive year. While expensive, it combines a strong commitment to service with a research focus unusual for liberal arts colleges. Historically, women’s colleges have always done well in our rankings, reflecting their continued focus on justice, scholarship, and the public good.

Berea College stands out for its one-of-a-kind no-tuition policy, selective admissions, and mission to serve first-generation low-income students in Appalachia. Traditional liberal arts leader Amherst College has increased its commitment to enrolling and graduating low-income students in recent years, while using its ample endowment to keep prices manageable. Number two Carleton College in Minnesota sends more students on to the Peace Corps and PhD programs, combined, than any other liberal arts college in America.

The Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.


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