A few months ago, the Obama administration completed a remarkably successful run of sticking it to large corporations that make a profit in higher education. First, as part of the omnibus legislation that produced the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Obama pushed through a wholesale reform of the student loan industry, taking away tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to private banks and using the money to increase financial aid for low-income students. Then, in 2011, Obama stamped down on the excesses of for-profit colleges that have been raking in billions of dollars from federal financial aid programs while leaving students with low-value degrees and crushing debt. Under the administration’s controversial “gainful employment” rules, finalized in June, colleges whose graduates don’t earn enough money in the job market to pay back their loans will lose federal aid, a penalty that will effectively shut those colleges down.

These are exactly the kind of progressive, pro-student reforms Obama was elected to enact. But they also lead to a question: What’s next? In his first address to Congress, the president set a bold goal of regaining the international lead in college graduation by 2020. But only 10 percent of students attend for-profit colleges, and Obama’s loan reforms, while admirable, aren’t going to have a significant effect on the number of people who ultimately earn a college degree. Meanwhile, the latest research suggests that many students in traditional colleges aren’t learning very much, even as tuition is rising out of sight.

For a Democratic president, battling big business is the easy part. If Obama’s 2020 goal is going to become more than an empty slogan, he’s going to have to do something considerably harder: take on the entrenched interests in the traditional public and nonprofit higher education sector and get them to do more on behalf of students and the public. That means defining what, exactly, a public-minded college should do.

We believe that the Washington Monthly college rankings provide an excellent answer to that question. Conventional rankings like those published by U.S. News & World Report are designed to show what colleges can do for you. Since 2005, our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, isn’t just important for undergraduates. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they offer students from low-income families the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies. Everyone has a stake in how that money is spent.

That’s why one-third of each college’s score on our rankings is based on social mobility: How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? Our second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to PhDs. Finally, we give great weight to service. It’s not enough to help students look out for themselves. The best colleges encourage students to give something back.

Our full rankings for national universities are here, liberal art colleges are here are here. Master’s universities are here and baccalaureate colleges are here. It turns out that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces some surprising results. Well-known colleges that are routinely lauded by U.S. News fare much worse when ranked according to what they do for the country. On the other hand, colleges that are routinely lost in the bottom tiers of the U.S. News rankings are top performers on our list. Here are some of the highlights of the 2011 Washington Monthly college rankings:

Public Citizens

Public universities have been battered by state budget cuts in recent years even as the most elite private institutions have been insulated by admissions selectivity and endowments containing vast piles of taxpayer-subsidized cash. Since the U.S. News rankings are mostly a matter of wealth and exclusivity, it’s not surprising that there is not a single public institution among their top twenty universities. But despite their financial woes, twelve of our twenty highest-rated universities are public, including the top-ranked University of California, San Diego. Six of the eight campuses in the UC system land among our best-ranked universities, a testament to California’s historic commitment to institutions that combine world-class research and access for low-income students. While the UC system’s continued dominance shows that it takes a while to grind a great university system down, we fear that the Golden State’s ongoing disinvestment in higher education (the UC budget has been cut by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2007) will eventually diminish the best public universities in the world.

Some well-known private universities, by contrast, are nowhere near the top of our rankings. Yale shows up at number thirty-nine, Dartmouth at number seventy-four, and Washington University in St. Louis is all the way down at number 112. Wash U managed to climb to number thirteen on the U.S. News rankings in recent decades, knocking on the door of the Ivy League. But its service commitment is substandard, and its economic diversity is abysmal—only 6 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants. Wash U appears to be more focused on itself than on everyone else.

Some public universities, by contrast, stand out for their commitment to helping first-generation students get ahead. Jackson State and South Carolina State are both historically black universities that fare poorly on conventional rankings because they enroll a lot of students from low-income backgrounds who don’t always have stellar SATs. But precisely because they help so many of those students achieve, they’re number nine and number eighteen, respectively, on our list.

Learning Service

One of the dangers of charging ever-higher tuition, as colleges have been doing for years, is that it can snuff out the natural altruism students often feel at that point in their lives. It’s hard to think about serving your country or community when you’re worried about servicing your student loans. But some colleges do make a conscious effort to emphasize larger obligations. Case Western Reserve is a well-known Ohio research university that shows up at a respectable number forty-one on the U.S. News rankings. It vaults all the way to number seven on our list due to an unusual commitment to service: Case Western students go into the Peace Corps in high numbers, the university spends a significant amount of work-study money on service, and it reports high levels of service participation by students and faculty. Texas A&M, number sixty-three on the U.S. News ranking, reached fifteenth place on our list with the help of the highest ROTC participation rate of any national university.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, Princeton (whose slogan is, ironically, “In the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations”) scores near the bottom of our service list. That’s because of low service-hour numbers (Princeton didn’t report data on service hours, whereas Stanford reported twenty hours and UCLA reported seventy-two), along with poor ROTC and Peace Corps participation.

Liberal Lions

Our ranking of the best liberal arts colleges shows how small institutions built around a particular historical mission can thrive in the modern world. This year, the number one spot was earned by Berea College, a tuition-free institution in Kentucky that was founded by abolitionists and has a mission of enrolling low-income students. Eighty percent of Berea students receive federal Pell Grants, a level of student poverty that at other, lesser colleges and universities would result in graduation rates in the mid-teens. At Berea, by contrast, nearly two-thirds of students graduate on time and a healthy number go on to earn PhDs.

Historically black and single-gender colleges continue to rank well by our measures, as they have in years past. Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta rank number two and number four, respectively, while Bryn Mawr is number three. Dillard and Fisk Universities—both historically black, and both lower tier according to
U.S. News—make our top twenty-five. Reed College in Oregon has an iconoclastic reputation and doesn’t emphasize grades. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take academics seriously. Reed enrolls only 1,400 undergraduates, compared to the tens of thousands at a typical public university. Yet, in 2009, almost as many newly granted PhDs were awarded to Reed alumni as were given to graduates of the University of Oregon or Oregon State.

Better Measures

Pushing the gigantic ocean liner that is the American higher education system onto a new course won’t be easy. The Obama administration will encounter fierce resistance from institutions that have long enjoyed generous tax subsidies, financial aid revenue, and research support with very little accountability for results. And to be sure, President Obama won’t reach his goals by regulating the higher education sector into submission. Instead, he needs to create new terms of prestige that will make colleges want to focus their resources and interests on serving the public interest.

That’s what our rankings aim to provide. Everyone knows that colleges change their policies to climb the U.S. News ladder by rejecting more student applications, hounding alumni for donations, and spending lavish sums on attention-getting buildings and star faculty hires. Imagine if they applied similar ingenuity to the task of improving community service, preparing undergraduates for careers in the sciences, and helping low-income students earn degrees. Colleges that have no chance of climbing the U.S. News status ladder would receive long-overdue recognition, while institutions that have selfishly hoarded their resources would face new pressure to give back.

There are, moreover, ways to make our rankings—and, thus, the pressure on colleges—more effective still. Research published earlier this year by the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that more than a third of students learn little or nothing in four-year colleges between the time they enroll as freshmen and when they graduate as seniors. To reach these findings, Arum and Roksa used a well-regarded test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and communication skills called the Collegiate Learning Assessment. For years, this magazine has called on more colleges to use instruments like the CLA—and, crucially, to publicly release the results. The response has been less than enthusiastic. It’s not necessary to publish results, colleges assure us: Learning is fine, they say; nothing to see here! Arum and Roksa’s research shows definitively, however, that all is not well in undergraduate education. Policymakers should demand that colleges taking public money publish comparable, rankable measures of student learning results in exchange.

There are also a number of new ways to calculate another crucial college outcome: how much money students earn in the job market after they graduate. As Erin Dillon describes on page 57, a great deal of new information about postcollegiate earnings is becoming available from government and private sources. As with our service, mobility, and research measures, ranking colleges based on how much money students earn for their tuition dollars yields intriguing results. Some lesser-known schools are doing a stellar job preparing students for careers, while some amazingly expensive colleges are not.

If reputations rise and fall based on student learning results, then colleges will have incentives to base faculty tenure on teaching, not just research. If university presidents get good press from graduating more low-income students, they’ll spend more financial aid money on the needy, rather than using it to buy students with higher SATs. If striving parents compete for the prestige of getting their children into colleges that emphasize service, more college graduates will enter careers that serve the common good. The end result would be a more democratic, equitable, and prosperous nation. That should rank high on President Obama’s agenda in the coming years.

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