In this issue we proudly present the Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide, including our very own College Rankings. As in previous years, our intent is to offer an alternative to U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, which we find objectionable for a number of reasons (see “A Different Kind of College Ranking”). Our approach is fundamentally different from U.S. News and similar guides: instead of focusing on what colleges can do for you, we ask what colleges are doing for the country—by improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service. Want to know how your alma mater stacks up? Check out the rankings here.

Our ultimate aim is to use this information to change the way people think about colleges and universities, the first step toward changing the institutions themselves. And make no mistake: changes—big changes—are necessary, and they’re coming. In the last couple of years Americans have learned the hard way that long-term trends that seem unsustainable often turn out to be just that. Real estate prices cannot climb faster than income year after year without eventually crashing and taking down the economy. Carbon cannot be pumped into the atmosphere indefinitely without inviting environmental catastrophe. Health care costs cannot continually rise faster than GDP without weakening businesses and bankrupting the government.

To this list of dangerously unsustainable trends we must add college costs, which are accelerating upward on a one-way track to ruin. Since 1980, inflation-adjusted tuition at public universities has more than tripled—a steeper cost curve, even, than the health care expenses everyone wants to “bend down.” At the very moment that the nation’s long-term economic viability depends on our ability to get more students through college, we’re making higher education too expensive to buy.

Politicians have not been wholly unresponsive to the pain this is causing students and their parents. President Obama has proposals to reform the federal student loan system and index Pell Grants to inflation, and these proposals are moving through Congress. These are welcome initiatives, but they do nothing to get at the underlying drivers of rising prices. We’ve spent decades pouring billions of dollars into subsidies and student aid while occasionally suggesting that colleges show some restraint in jacking up tuition. It hasn’t worked. It’s time to try something new.

If colleges and universities were direct agencies of the government, we could restrain their spending by tightening their budgets. But American higher education isn’t structured that way. It’s a decentralized, market-based system, with thousands of largely autonomous institutions, private as well as public, competing for the tuition dollars of individual students. Market competition, of course, is supposed to keep a check on prices or drive them down. A big reason that’s not happening in higher education is that the consumers have no access to key information: how well different schools teach their students. We know which schools attract students with the highest SAT scores, and which are reputed to be the best based on surveys of college presidents and administrators. U.S. News bases its college rankings on such data. But these are measures of prestige, not classroom learning. And without measures of learning—education’s primary bottom line—there can be no real market discipline. Instead, colleges can raise prices with relative impunity— and spend the extra money on everything but their students’ education. They can compete for fame and glory and stick students with the bill.

This problem will not solve itself. Colleges will not unilaterally disarm by releasing information that might damage their reputations. Only the federal government can accomplish that, by mandating the regular disclosure of key data about performance. Not as a means of telling colleges how to educate students—that would be a disaster—but simply telling the world if colleges are educating students well.

Measuring learning is tricky, of course. The human mind is a lot more complicated than a corporation’s quarterly net profits. Luckily, our colleges and universities are full of people who have been exquisitely trained to unravel complex phenomena. If we can decode the human genome and figure out what happened in the first milliseconds after the Big Bang, we can arrive at some reasonably accurate estimate of how much various groups of students learn over two or four years, in a way that takes into account the vast diversity of what individual colleges are trying to accomplish and who they enroll. As Ben Wildavsky reports, there are already efforts under way to do this internationally, and it’s in America’s interests to join those efforts.

There are also some interesting experiments here at home. Boosted by federal stimulus funds, states are now investing hundreds of millions of dollars in data systems that will allow them to analyze what happens to students after they graduate. Which universities are helping students land good, well-paying positions in their field? Which colleges are sending students into socially beneficial jobs like teaching and military service? Soon—in a matter of years, not decades—we will know.

Add to that the vast amount of cheap-and-becoming-cheaper information made possible by the Internet—inexpensive student and alumni surveys, new financial data, detailed feedback from employers; the list goes on—and it’s clear we’re entering a time of higher education information abundance. Presuming the higher education establishment doesn’t cut off the flow of that information, we can use it to give consumers and politicians what they’ve never had before: a true picture of college quality in all its dimensions and forms.

That, in turn, will make possible the crucial element the higher education market is missing: a measure of value, quality divided by price. Right now there’s no data to form the numerator of that equation, so people just assume that price and value are one and the same. Thus, they think that low-cost community colleges are for losers who couldn’t get in elsewhere, middling public universities are fine if you don’t mind being stuck in the hinterlands, and the most elite, wealthy, expensive institutions are where every student should want to go and what every college should want to be. And the only way to enter the elite ranks if you’re a college is to grab more money from anywhere you can—from the government, from alumni, and, most of all, from students.

Value measures would allow colleges to do what they can’t do now: lower prices without being punished by the market. New competitors would have a level playing field on which to prove their worth, one way or another, rather than waiting decades or longer for their reputation to settle in stone. The public colleges and universities that educate the vast majority of all students could finally be recognized for being great at what they were meant to be: institutions that give large numbers of undergraduates a solid education at a reasonable price.

Nowhere is information-based innovation more desperately needed than in community colleges—especially at the remedial level. As Camille Esch reports, community college remedial courses are the Bermuda Triangle of higher education. Vast numbers of students enter them, and for all practical purposes disappear. Institutional indifference, a paucity of government resources, and a lack of hard data about what works makes improving remedial education a tough proposition. But there are some new rays of hope.

Innovation in higher education is not without risk. Colleges and universities are public institutions serving multiple public ends (some of which we try to measure in our rankings). They are not the same as corporations. Much damage can be done when that fact is forgotten—as Mariah Blake shows in a fascinating story about the rise and decline of Ave Maria School of Law and the role of its founder, Domino’s Pizza mogul Tom Monaghan. Because they serve multiple public ends, trying to bring needed change to one aspect of higher education risks undermining other aspects. Kevin Carey tells the story of a company called StraighterLine that has figured out how to deliver quality introductory college courses online for $99 a month. The good news is that at those prices, almost anyone can afford college. The bad news is that StraighterLine’s model could do to higher education what Craigslist did to newspapers: drain off so much revenue that vital but expensive public tasks (reporting, in the case of newspapers; scholarship, in the case of colleges) lose their base of funding.

But the potential threats from innovation in higher education have to be weighed against clear dangers of continuing down the path we’re on. If tuition continues to rise faster than incomes, then we’re in for a long, crushing era of diminished opportunity. Public attitudes toward higher education will sour, and public funding will be in increasingly short supply. Institutions will become ever more insular and self-obsessed, locked in competition for status markers that increasingly reflect the narcissism of small differences. Foreign students, who have traditionally been cash cows for universities and wellsprings of talent and entrepreneurialism for the country, will find better, cheaper alternatives elsewhere. And tens of thousands of low- and middle-income students for whom higher education means the difference between a hard life and a better one will lose out—at the very time that their country badly needs them to succeed.

We have no illusions about what it will take to get from here to there. The current system serves a lot of established interests well: elite colleges that have been coasting on long-established reputations; unaccountable administrators and faculty; everyone who gets a taste of the tuition dollars that are flowing out of students’ wallets at ever growing rates.

But progress in almost any realm means contending with entrenched interests. And in the end, we think the forces of change, and the arguments for it, will win out. Transparency, opportunity, fair competition—these are American values. As a nation, we’ve long put a higher premium on education than most. We’ve been willing to let old institutions fall away and newer, better ones rise. We have steadily, if too slowly, opened the doors of higher education to all. America’s future prosperity depends on us holding those doors open for the next generation.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.