COLLEGE RANKINGS THAT AREN’T RIDICULOUS…. Today the Washington Monthly releases its annual College Rankings. This is our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige for its rankings. Instead, we rate schools based on what they are doing for the country — on whether they’re improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.

The Washington Monthly‘s unique methodology yields strikingly different results.

* Yale and Princeton, two of U.S. News‘s perennial darlings, once again fail even to crack our top 20. Instead, schools like the University of California San Diego, our number one national university this year, and South Carolina State University, a school relegated to a bottom tier in U.S. News, leave several members of the Ivy League in the dust.

* Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male institution in Atlanta, beats out Amherst, Swarthmore, Williams, and other name-brand schools to become the top liberal arts college in America, according to our measures.

* In our first-ever rankings of Master’s Universities, a category of schools that often gets overlooked in national ratings, we shine a spotlight on the largely unknown St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, which comes out ahead of such elites as Wesleyan, Wellesley, and Pomona.

* While all the top twenty U.S. News universities are private, thirteen of the top twenty Washington Monthly universities are public.

* Women’s liberal arts colleges score well in the Washington Monthly rankings, with Bryn Mawr, Spelman, and Wellesley all in the Top 10.

In addition, this year we turn our attention to a vast category of schools that other college guides never bother to evaluate: community colleges. While U.S. News glorifies schools that promise to initiate their students into the elite, the best community colleges serve a far more important mission: granting low-income and minority students admission into the middle class. We agree with the Obama administration that these two-year schools are a key to America’s future, and so we’ve ranked the top 50 of them to show that excellence isn’t only the province of wealthy, exclusive institutions. In fact, we found that the best community colleges — schools like Saint Paul College in Minnesota, our #1 — offer educations that rival those at elite four-year institutions.

We want people to use this information to change the way they think about colleges and universities, which is the first step toward changing the institutions themselves. And make no mistake: with tuition rising faster than health care costs, big changes are necessary, and they’re coming. That’s why we’re also proud of our College Guide Web site, devoted to higher education reform — a subject we believe will be one of the big emerging stories of the coming decade. Take a look.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.