In the space of a little more than a week this past June, two university presidents revealed just how cynical they’re willing to be.
First, Clemson University President James F. Barker admitted to rating Clemson as the single greatest university in America—better than Harvard, Yale, or any other—when he filled out the reputational survey that drives the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Soon after, a newspaper investigation uncovered similar shenanigans at the University of Florida, where President Bernie Machen ranked his institution as equal to the Ivies while downgrading all other public institutions in Florida as mediocre at best.
Some see these episodes as further evidence for abolishing college rankings altogether. We disagree. Dishonesty and bad behavior in the face of public scrutiny is understandable but never excusable. Students paying large and ever-growing amounts of money to attend college need comparative information to help them make smart choices. When colleges object to rankings in principle, they’re really just looking to avoid accountability and healthy competition. U.S. News has the right idea—they’re just using the wrong data, ranking colleges with crude, easily manipulated measures like alumni giving rates, class size, and that vague survey of reputation. It’s good that university presidents care enough about rankings to lie so shamelessly. We just need rankings that create incentives for presidents to actually improve their institutions, rather than pretend to.
Higher education, moreover, isn’t something that only seventeen-year-olds and their parents need to worry about. In the information age, we all depend on colleges and universities to produce groundbreaking research and new inventions, to serve as engines of social mobility for first-generation college students, and to mold the minds of future leaders. And we all pay for it—colleges receive enormous amounts of public money through direct subsidies and tax breaks every year. In other words, we need more than just good college rankings for prospective students—we need good college rankings for everyone else.
And that’s what the Washington Monthly College Rankings aim to provide: a measure of not just what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. To compile the list, we gathered reams of publicly available data and settled on three criteria: social mobility, research, and service. In our eyes, America’s best colleges are those that work hardest to help economically disadvantaged students earn the credentials that the job market demands. They’re the institutions that contribute new scientific discoveries and highly trained PhDs. They’re the colleges that emphasize the obligations students have to serve their communities and the nation at large.
From that perspective, higher education excellence starts to take on a very different meaning than what the status- and money-obsessed institutions that routinely round out the top of the U.S. News list represent. In fact, only one of the U.S. News top ten—Stanford—makes our top ten, while some of our highest-ranked schools are buried by U.S. News in the magazine’s lowest tiers.
Here are some of the biggest standouts and surprises from our 2009 rankings:
Public Virtue, Private Shame
All of the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, as are nearly all the top colleges. But by our reckoning, public universities deserve a lot more credit than they’re getting—thirteen of our top twenty universities are taxpayer funded. The University of California system in particular stands out, grabbing the top three spots—including number-one-ranked Berkeley—and six of the top twenty-five. UC campuses enroll unusually large numbers of low-income students while maintaining high graduation rates, generating billions of dollars in research funding, and sending a healthy number of students into service programs like the Peace Corps. Tragically, steep budget cuts stemming from the current California budget fiasco are putting all of that at risk.
On the flip side, allegedly world-class private institutions like Princeton, Duke, and Penn fail to crack our top twenty-five, coming in at number twenty-eight, thirty-three, and fifty-nine, respectively. They were all beaten out by South Carolina State University, where 71 percent of students qualify for Pell Grants and an uncommonly large number participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Most of the Ivy League won’t even let ROTC on campus—a principle with which we (and President Obama) disagree. Jackson State University in Mississippi ranks a spot before Yale on our list, just as Utah State sits above Princeton. These public universities do a lot more than enroll a few token poor students while greasing the skids for the children of privilege.
Sisters and Brothers
There are only a handful of women’s colleges in America, but according to our rankings they play an outsized role in contributing to the public good. Mount Holyoke comes in at number two, a full twenty-five spots above its U.S. News ranking, followed quickly by Smith College at number six, Bryn Mawr at number seven, and Wellesley at number ten.
Other institutions that have a mission to serve underrepresented students stand out. Two historically black institutions in Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse, make a strong showing on our list. U.S. News sticks minority-serving colleges like Louisiana’s Dillard University and Tennessee’s Fisk University in its lowly “third tier” because they’re not rich and exclusive. We rank them in our top fifty precisely because they enroll many low-income students and—relative to other colleges with similar student profiles—help many of them earn degrees. That’s also why Berea College—a small institution in Kentucky founded by abolitionists as an integrated, coeducational college that charges no tuition and is dedicated to helping first-generation college students—does so well in our eyes.
Clemson, meanwhile, is stuck all the way down at number 116 on our ranking. While President Barker has been busy pursuing his publicly announced goal of cracking the U.S. News ranking of the top twenty public universities by cooking the financial books and denigrating the competition, he’s done nothing to improve the university’s poor record in promoting social mobility (14 percent of students qualify for Pell Grants). According to the Center for Measuring University Performance, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Clemson faculty received prestigious awards in their field, an amount that doesn’t even crack the top 200. (That’s also about the proportion of Clemson students who enter the Peace Corps.) Less than 12 percent of Clemson’s federal work-study dollars are spent on community service projects, well below the national average. Clemson’s relentless pursuit of status seems to have come at the expense of helping students and society at large.
And Clemson isn’t alone. Since 2001, Northeastern University in Boston has jumped more than fifty spots in the U.S. News rankings, recently breaking into the top 100. We rank it number 236 out of 258. Washington University in St. Louis is famous in higher education circles for aggressive marketing tactics, driving up applications and bringing it all the way to number twelve on the U.S. News list. Our ranking tells a different story—Wash U is number ninety-nine and dropping from previous years. Some institutions are trying hard to help others—and some are in it for themselves.
A Better Measure of Excellence
It’s clear from the exploits of these bad actors that rankings matter—indeed, they’re among the few proven ways to influence the behavior of the nation’s famously independent colleges and universities. By giving credit where it’s due to colleges that are truly fulfilling their public obligations, we hope to make life a little easier for college leaders who are trying to do the right thing—and to give elected officials reasons to reward those deserving campuses with more public funding and support. We also want to give college presidents a reason to think twice before selling their soul for a few spots on the U.S. News list.
And in the long run, we’d love to be able to make our rankings better still. While we stand behind the social mobility, research, and service measures, we want to add even more, particularly with respect to the single most important thing colleges do: helping students learn. Remarkably, colleges report virtually no useful, comparable information about teaching practices or how much students learn between the time they arrive as freshmen and leave as seniors. It’s not that such data don’t exist—when we published our first college rankings in 2005, we noted that hundreds of universities participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement, which measures things like the number of books and papers student are assigned, student-faculty interaction, and the overall campus environment. A year later we wrote about the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the results of which prove that the most learning sometimes happens at the least selective colleges. But data from both assessments continue to be held close by universities, which only report them if and when they choose.
There are, however, positive signs from the Obama administration, including a push for legislation that would require colleges to report data like graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients (another measure we called for four years ago), how much students earn after college, and whether they land a good job. This type of transparency will be key to understanding which colleges really serve the public interest—and giving others a reason to follow their lead.
Imagine how things would change if such measures were added to our service, research, and social mobility ratings, and colleges began working night and day to boost their standing on the Washington Monthly rankings instead of those published by U.S. News. They would provide more financial aid to needy students, rather than—as is increasingly the case—throwing money at wealthy students with high SATs. They’d invest in counseling to help more students graduate and then encourage those students to give back once they earn their degree. They’d change the way they hire and promote professors, so teaching would matter just as much as scholarship. And they’d focus more intently on producing the breakthroughs and scientists our economy needs.
The result would be a more democratic, equitable, and prosperous nation, a place where the interests of colleges, students, and society are, finally, one and the same.