The Second Annual Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Rankings

As you may recall, last year WaMo introduced a new college ranking aimed at getting at the kind of information students, parents and tax-payers need: a “bang-for-the-buck” ranking that–as Robert Kelchen explained–“rewards schools that do a good job of conferring degrees on middle- and lower-income students while charging them reasonable prices.” The day before these rankings were released, President Obama announced an official intention to conduct a very similar rating of colleges. So we felt we gave the administration a good head start.

Now a second iteration of the best-bang-for-buck rankings is out even as we await the first draft of the official rating system. We hope it will be as influential as the first. Kelchen again explains the system:

To get on our list, colleges had to meet four criteria in the most recent year. First, to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent, at least 20 percent of their students must be receiving Pell Grants, which go to students of modest means (typically those with annual household incomes below $50,000). Second, they must have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent—hardly an exacting standard, but a fair one considering that we’re requiring that a fifth of their student body have lower incomes, a demographic that tends to graduate in lower numbers. Third, each school’s actual graduation rate must meet or exceed the rate that would be statistically predicted for that school given the number of lower-income students admitted (among other things, this calculation assures that schools with more than the minimum 20 percent of Pell students aren’t penalized). Fourth, to make sure their graduates are earning enough in the workforce to at least cover their student loans, schools must have a student loan default rate of 10 percent or less.

Once we compiled the list, we applied the “buck” part of the measure by ranking the schools based on their net price of attendance. (Net price is the average tuition that first-time, full-time students from families with an annual income of $75,000 or less actually pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.)

Unsurprisingly, good public colleges and universities tend to do well in these rankings:

The first thing you’ll notice is that the top three schools on this year’s list are City University of New York campuses (Brooklyn, Queens, and Baruch). The CUNY schools are legendary for having educated wave after wave of first-generation students, many from immigrant backgrounds, from Jonas Salk to Jennifer Lopez. These three colleges continue that tradition thanks to generous financing from both the state and the city, with at least 35 percent of their students receiving Pell Grants, a graduation rate of about 55 percent, and an average net price of about $5,000 for low- to middle-income students. These are the types of colleges that the U.S. News & World Report tends to relegate to its lower tiers, but they are a great value for students who can gain admission.

The next thing you’ll notice is the dominance of public schools. They take eighteen of the top twenty spots, and include such well-known names as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Texas A&M, and the University of Washington, alongside lesser-known schools like Murray State University in Kentucky and Wayne State College in Nebraska. These institutions tend to be in states that have historically been unusually committed to building affordable higher education systems. Some, like New York, have resisted the “disinvestment” trend we hear so much about. Others, like California and North Carolina, have pulled money out, but they were so cheap to begin with that they’re still, relatively speaking, inexpensive.

But that’s not the whole picture:

It’s worth pointing out—and giving kudos to—the relative handful of private institutions, including Amherst College and Brigham Young University-Idaho, that made the list. These schools go out of their way to recruit less-affluent students and keep the prices they charge to those students down.

It’s also worth noting some of the big-name public flagships, like the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, that aren’t on the list. That’s because they don’t admit enough Pell-eligible students, which is another way of saying that they don’t reflect the demographics of their own states.

Again, we hope the President and his appointees are taking notes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.