Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

For the last twelve years, the Washington Monthly has published a different kind of college ranking.

Unlike the prestige- and wealth-driven metrics put out by the likes of U.S. News & World Report, our rankings measure what colleges do for their country.

Instead of rewarding colleges for the number of applications they reject, we give them credit for enrolling unusually large numbers of low-income and first-generation students. Instead of assuming that the most expensive schools are also the best, we recognize universities that produce research, train the next generation of scientists and PhDs, and instill their graduates with an ethos of public service.

Our rankings are meant to be more than just a guide for potential students. An educated, enlightened society is a better society, for everyone. We all have a stake in how well our colleges succeed.

To that end, we’ve called for colleges to release much more information about themselves—in particular, how much their students learn.

And we’ve seen leaders of both parties, at the highest levels of government, respond. Not long after our first rankings were published, George W. Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, issued a high-profile report calling for colleges to release more information about how well undergraduates are educated, and be accountable for the results.

The Obama administration then developed a “College Scorecard” that shows prospective students how likely they are to get a good job and pay back their loans. When Obama announced an ambitious (though ultimately unfulfilled) effort to tie federal aid to a new college ratings system, the measures he proposed sounded an awful lot like the Monthly rankings. The world was getting better—too slowly, but moving in the right direction.

Then came Trump.

It’s hard to know exactly where the president and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, stand when it comes to making higher education more transparent, accountable, and focused on the best interests of students and citizens. Neither are distinguished in the collegiate and policy-making fields.

Check out the complete 2017 Washington Monthly
rankings 
here. 
Trump, of course, infamously ran a grifty real estate seminar disguised as an eponymous university and said, “I love the poorly educated!” because the degree-less were more likely to give him votes. DeVos is a free market ideologue from the world of K–12 schools. She has chosen not to fill the most important higher education position in her department, the undersecretary of education. Her most significant actions to date have involved rolling back Obama regulations designed to protect students from predatory for-profit schools (see Stephen Burd, “Borrower’s Remorse,”) and campus sexual assault.

Which is a shame, because our 2017 rankings show promise and peril in equal measure. There are still colleges and universities, most of them public, making fantastic contributions to the public good. But there are also schools, some of them prestigious and conventionally well regarded, that appear to be little more than expensive sorting machines for the already privileged. They’re inward-facing places that spend their resources mostly on themselves.

Here are the highlights of what we found.

National Universities

While the U.S. News list of “best” national universities is dominated by elite private institutions, ours is stocked with public research universities like UC Davis, the University of Washington, and Texas A&M. UC San Diego, our second-ranked public university, is a research powerhouse where over one-third of students come from first-generation and low-income families. Very few institutions manage the combination of academic excellence and economic opportunity so well.

Other public schools, like Utah State and Fresno State, are traditionally seen as second-tier institutions. We rank them among our twenty best. Given its demographics, Utah State is unusually good at graduating students who go on to high-paying jobs while successfully paying back their loans. Cal State has a stellar graduation rate relative to other colleges with a similar admissions profile, and its net price of attendance (what students pay after scholarships are deducted from tuition) is among the very lowest nationwide.

Our rankings are topped by familiar names: Stanford, Harvard, MIT. In their wealth and exclusivity, these schools are such extreme outliers that they tend to overwhelm the statistical models we use to predict outcomes like earnings and graduation rates. For the low-income and first-generation students who get in, they offer fantastic educational opportunities at almost no cost.

The problem is that no elite private schools seem seriously interested in enrolling more students to meet ever-growing demand. Harvard hasn’t significantly increased the size of its freshman class in decades, even as the college-going population has grown and applications have skyrocketed. Only a fifth of the students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an urban research university that falls just outside our top fifty, are Latino. Yet by itself, it educates more Latino students than Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Duke combined.

The Illinois Institute of Technology, also Chicago based, is a private engineering school that enrolls significant numbers of low-income and first-generation students. Tuition is middle of the road, but IIT makes up for it by excelling in preparing students for well-paying jobs that earn enough to pay back student loans. IIT also spends 30 percent of its work-study money on paying students for public service–oriented jobs with local nonprofit and community organizations, putting it among the top twenty institutions on that measure nationwide.

Then there are the private schools that don’t even pretend to use their wealth to make opportunity affordable. An unusually large number of the worst offenders seem to be located in Texas. Coming in at number 267 out of 303, Texas Christian University can at least say it is outperforming Southern Methodist, Dallas Baptist, and Texas Wesleyan, which rank even worse.

But the poster boy for Lone Star losers is Baylor University, ranked 288th, and home to a horrifying series of rape and sexual assault allegations centered on the (surprise!) football team, which were then downplayed and covered up by an administration run by a man who is apparently determined to drop the last shovel of dirt on the grave of irony: now-former Baylor president Kenneth Starr. Yes, that Kenneth Starr.

Baylor enjoys a conventionally good reputation and a comfortable slot at number 71 in the U.S. News rankings largely because it’s expensive and somewhat exclusive—fewer than half of applicants are admitted, and the average SAT score is over 1,200. What’s remarkable is how little else there is to Baylor—how little it does for its country.

Given its student demographics and SAT profile, Baylor students are less likely to graduate on time, get a good job, or pay back their loans than they should be. Baylor also enrolls relatively few low-income and first-generation students, and charges the neediest families extraordinarily large amounts of money: tuition at Baylor is $28,000 a year, one of the steepest bills nationwide. Baylor produces relatively little funded research or science and engineering PhDs, has almost no faculty with distinguished awards and appointments as we measure them (see our methodology, p. 120), and spends none of its federal work-study money on service. The only thing Baylor is good at, by our measures, is enrolling undergraduates in the ROTC.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Berea College, a sui generis institution dedicated to educating low-income and first-generation students in Appalachia, is again our highest-ranked liberal arts college. College opportunity is a perennial favorite charitable cause, and the fortunes earned in this second Gilded Age are yielding gigantic new philanthropies. Some moguls turned benefactors might look to Berea as an organizational model: low cost, values driven, and highly focused on strengthening a crucial rung on the ladder of economic opportunity.

Amherst College continues to shine as a top school with a firm commitment to enrolling students eligible for federal Pell Grants. Bryn Mawr spends more money on research than any other liberal arts college and is among our highest-ranked service schools. Harvey Mudd is tops for undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs. Washington and Lee University has stellar earnings results for graduates and some of the most affordable tuition in the country.

The College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit institution in Massachusetts, is one of America’s oldest Catholic liberal arts colleges. It’s a standout in three areas: students are unusually likely to graduate on time, get well-paying jobs, and pay off their loans. Even in a time of burgeoning debt, price inflation, and uncertain labor markets, some colleges excel at the nuts-and-bolts value proposition of higher education: a supportive path to a diploma and a career. Holy Cross is one.

Regional Campuses

The national higher education market is dominated by well-known research universities and liberal arts colleges. But most students go to college elsewhere, in community colleges or public schools that serve a dedicated region. Here, too, there are standouts and laggards aplenty.

St. John’s College in New Mexico is the western outpost of a long-established, intellectually quirky college dedicated to close reading of the Great Books of the Western world. It’s expensive, and a fair share of Johnnies drop out before making it all the way through Plutarch. But no master’s-granting college in the country sends more undergrads on to earn PhDs, and St. John’s Peace Corps matriculation rate is almost as strong.

Fairfield University in Connecticut is another school in the private, Jesuit, and New England–born Holy Cross vein where many more people graduate and get a good job than the demographics would predict.

Like the University of California system in our national university rankings, the California State system dominates the upper end of our master’s list, with a wide array of public institutions that remain unusually affordable and accessible to first-generation students while making considerable contributions to research.

The United States has over 12,000 miles of ocean coastline, which puts graduates of its seven public maritime academies in high demand. Two of them, one in Maine and the other the Cal State campus in Vallejo, produce unusually high student earnings, putting them among our top ten bachelor’s-granting schools. Calvin College in Michigan is yet another school with a strong Christian tradition where students are unusually likely to finish college and pay back loans.

What Next?

The Washington Monthly college rankings project is dedicated to both the cause and use of higher education data. We’ve called for colleges and policymakers to put more long-hidden or deliberately uncalculated information into the public arena, where it can improve student choices and paint a more nuanced picture of collegiate success. As new data has become available, we’ve incorporated it into our rankings, while holding fast to our values of economic opportunity, scientific progress, and service. The result has been a steady coming-into-focus, with the colleges that balance their obligations to students and knowledge production while remaining affordable emerging at the top of our lists.

The Trump era will likely put that progress on hold. The president’s strategy of making text out of the Republican Party’s white supremacist subtext hardly bodes well for the millions of immigrant and minority college students struggling to earn degrees. His crude big business populism and reflexive opposition to federal regulation play right into the hands of established organizations that profit from a lack of public information. To be clear, not all of these incumbents are for-profit corporations. They also include public and nonprofit colleges and universities that, as our rankings show, could do far more to advance the broad national interest in higher learning.

But we’re also optimistic that the present regime is only a bump on the long road to insight. It’s hard to keep data under wraps, particularly when the constituency for better information about colleges is so large. The hundreds of under-recognized colleges that we’ve identified and elevated over the years are a testament to the breadth of America’s higher education excellence, and to the pressing need to expand our national vision of what collegiate success ought to mean.

We’ll continue to use the best available information to advance an inclusive vision of higher education greatness. We’re confident that cause will outlast the present regime.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.