Political Animal


August 27, 2012 10:25 AM College Rankings That Aren’t Ridiculous

By Paul Glastris

Today, the Washington Monthly magazine is releasing its annual College Guide and Rankings, which The New York Times has called “more interesting than virtually any other ranking out there.” While U.S. News & World Report relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige for its rankings, the Washington Monthly rates schools based on what they are doing for their students and the country — on whether they’re improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.

This year for the first time we also included a critical new value factor that’s ignored or poorly measured by other college rankings. By looking at which institutions combine higher than expected graduation rates with affordable prices, we are able to offer a true measure of where the biggest “bang for the buck” is to be found in higher education.

The Washington Monthly’s unique methodology yields striking results.

  • Only one of U.S. News’ top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthy’s top ten. Yale fails even to crack our top 40. New York University, which has floated to national prominence on a sea of student debt, is 77th. NYU does particularly poorly on the new “bang for the buck” measure, being among the most expensive universities in America.
  • Similarly, while Northeastern University in Boston has soared in the U.S. News rankings to within shouting distance of the coveted “First Tier,” we rank it 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.
  • Instead, the University of California - San Diego is our number one national university for the third year in a row, a testament to its commitment to educating an economically diverse student body while supporting world-class research. Six of our top 20 universities hail from the UC system.
  • While all the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, 13 of the top twenty Washington Monthly universities are public. In the U.S. News rankings public universities 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.
  • Our ranking of liberal arts colleges also reveals institutions that standout for being exceptionally good at holding down costs and adding value. For example, 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.
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities also did well in our rankings: Tougaloo College, a small, private, 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 20 on our rankings.

This year’s guide also includes in-depth feature stories:

  • Getting Rid of the College Loan Repo Man. As predatory debt- collection agencies ruin the lives of more and more Americans, Steve Burd explains how we are ignoring an easy and fair solution.
  • The Siege of Academe. For years, Silicon Valley has failed to breach the walls of higher education with disruptive technology. But the tide of battle is changing. Kevin Carey files a report from the front lines.
Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • matt w on August 27, 2012 10:55 AM:

    I see that you're still pro-rating some scores for size and others not, and still counting humanities PhDs differently whether they're awarded by the university or to alumni. And you still haven't uttered a word to justify these arbitrary choices.

    To paraphrase Apocalypse Now:
    "Is my methodology unsound?"
    "I don't see any methodology at all, sir."

  • Cranky Observer on August 27, 2012 11:48 AM:

    Are these rankings still weighted to support the movement to transform our nation into Sparta?


  • Keith Wms on August 27, 2012 12:15 PM:

    Very interesting report- good work! Good to see some challenge made to the tarnished concept of prestige.

    The recent Rutgers report reveals very low median salary among college grads, and many grads are taking jobs unrelated to their career path and for which degrees aren't even required. Does the Washington Monthly report look at employment results for grads? With so few schools taking a stake in real-world training and helping establish connections to employment, that metric is important and rapidly becoming more so.

  • John on August 27, 2012 1:55 PM:

    These rankings are at least as ridiculous as those of U.S. News; they're just based on different things.

  • Greytdog on August 27, 2012 7:14 PM:

    So glad to see Berea College receive some much deserved recognition. Thank you!