To see our full list of rankings, click here.

Eight years ago, the Washington Monthly published its first annual college rankings. Back in 2005, America was still operating under a compact with its citizens, colleges, and universities that had stood for the better part of the previous hundred years. The taxpayers would invest in basic research while keeping tuition at public institutions low enough that middle- and lower-class students could afford a degree. In return, colleges would produce the human and intellectual capital needed to sustain economic growth and civic life.

The strength of the bargain waxed and waned over the years. It depended less on federal law than on a set of common understandings among policy makers in state capitals and Washington, D.C. Starting in the 1980s, state lawmakers developed a bad habit of using their public universities as a kind of fiscal balance wheel, slashing budgets during recessions and letting tuition hikes make up the difference. But in the long run, states managed to keep up with inflation and a huge surge in enrollment driven by the Baby Boomers’ children reaching college age. State spending per college student in 2005 still lagged from the 2001 recession, but in the growth years that followed states did what they had always done before: they invested in higher learning. By 2008, spending per student was higher than it had been twenty years before.

We designed the Washington Monthly college rankings to embody the American higher education compact at the institutional level. Instead of lauding colleges for closing their doors to all but an elite few, we give high marks to institutions that enroll low-income students, help them graduate, and don’t charge them an arm and a leg to attend. Universities that bring in research dollars are rewarded by our standards, as are those whose undergraduates go on to earn PhDs. And we recognize institutions that are committed to public service, both in the way they teach and in encouraging students to enter service-focused careers.

We do this because everyone has a stake in the conduct of our colleges and universities. We’re all affected by the productivity of our knowledge workers and the integrity of our college-educated leaders. And we all pay for higher education through hundreds of billions of dollars in annual public subsidies. This is the essence of the college bargain that has long been a pillar of national prosperity.

But something changed after the Great Recession of 2008. As with many other parts of American life, this time was different. States made unprecedented cuts to higher education budgets. By 2012, inflation-adjusted state appropriations per student were 21 percent lower than they had been in 1990. Tuition in some of the nation’s biggest public university systems jumped 50 percent or more in the span of four years.

In part, this reflected the depth and magnitude of the financial calamity. But lurking in the statements and actions of state lawmakers there was a sense that a turning point had been reached. The idea of public universities as public institutions, accountable to the citizens and accessible to all, was pushed aside and replaced by a notion of universities as private state-chartered institutions that charge whatever the market will bear. As Stephen Burd describes in “Merit Aid Madness,” some states had been on this path for decades, letting tuition rates rise while failing to provide low-income students with adequate financial aid. As Paul Stephens recounts in “International Students: Separate but Profitable,” other states have jumped on the bandwagon of replacing hundreds or thousands of home-state students with the children of wealthy Chinese government officials and businessmen who are willing to pay premium rates for an American college education.

The tragedy of this widespread public disinvestment is that the case for public spending on higher education has never been stronger. The economic calamity of 2008 exposed stark differences in the security of people with different levels of learning. People with college degrees were much less likely to lose their jobs and more likely to get them back during the slow recovery. The new wealth that has accumulated in the last few years has gone almost exclusively to college graduates. Upswings in the business cycle are no longer occasions for companies to rehire laid-off workers to their old factory jobs. Every new financial squeeze is an occasion to shed more low-skill jobs and replace them with a combination of foreign workers and machines designed and run by people who possess the knowledge and skills colleges impart.

Robust public higher education institutions give everyone a chance to navigate these treacherous economic waters. They provide the knowledge workers that fuel economic growth and thus the public resources needed to protect the vulnerable and unlucky. But the more our public colleges and universities are privatized, the more their benefits will accrue to the already privileged and wealthy, accelerating the growing inequality that increasingly stands as the defining domestic challenge of our times. The middle class built our public higher education system, and only broadly shared prosperity can generate enough aggregate demand to keep the nation’s economy in forward motion.

Our rankings aim to identify institutions that are acting on behalf of the true public interest. The complete list of our national university rankings begins on page 60, liberal arts colleges on 74, and master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges on 86. Some of the names are familiar. But others show that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces surprising results. Some famous (and expensive) colleges that routinely top the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings fare poorly by our measures, while other less-costly institutions are doing a stellar job of serving their students and their country. Here are highlights from the 2013 Washington Monthly college rankings:

Public Interest

The University of California, San Diego, tops our ranking of national universities for the fourth consecutive year. It is closely followed by UC Riverside, which moves up into the second slot for the first time. Campuses in the UC system represent six of our top twenty-five institutions, reflecting the University of California’s historical commitment to pairing public access with world-class research. Yet California is also one of the states that have cut university budgets and raised tuition the most. The continuing strength of the UC campuses in our rankings reflects their ongoing commitment to enrolling low-income students, and the fact that federal research spending has not been hit as hard as state support. In addition, our list is, like all rankings, relativistic. If many states cut their budgets simultaneously, the position of public universities relative to one another can remain unchanged.

The University of Texas at El Paso and Tennessee State University are both among our highest-ranked universities despite the fact that they usually rate much lower on other national lists of elite institutions. These universities enroll large numbers of low-income students and graduate more of them than the economic and academic profiles of their students would predict, while charging the kind of affordable tuition that is increasingly rare. As Robert Kelchen shows in “America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges,” this “bang for the buck” measure of performance and price identifies institutions that are outpacing their peers in helping students finish college while keeping costs and prices under control.

Other universities, by contrast, continue to raise prices while contributing little to the national interest of helping middle- and lower-income students earn college degrees. Only 6 percent of students attending the elite Washington University in St. Louis qualify for the federal Pell Grant program, one of the lowest percentages in the nation, while the university charges students an eye-popping average net price of over $32,000 per year. The College of William and Mary is one of the nation’s oldest universities, but it betrays its public purpose by limiting Pell Grant enrollment to 10 percent of the student body. Duke, Yale, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Cornell all tumble in our rankings because of their inadequate commitment to social mobility.

Several Washington, D.C.-area institutions have particularly low ranking scores. George Washington University barely cracks the top 100 at number ninety-four, American University comes in at number 114, and Catholic University falls all the way to number 268, one of the worst in the nation. All three private universities charge unusually high tuition, even after accounting for financial aid, enroll relatively few low-income students, and have graduation rates lower than statistics suggest they should. This is what public universities are evolving toward if their public character continues to erode.

Liberal Learning

Our ranking of liberal arts colleges also uncovers institutions that excel in surprising ways. Bryn Mawr is ranked first for the second year in a row, reflecting a broad pattern of women’s colleges dedicated to scholarship and service. In addition to graduating nearly all of its students and making important contributions to research, Bryn Mawr spends a higher percentage of work-study money on service than any other liberal arts college in America, and ranks near the top in sending students to the Peace Corps and promoting service for students and faculty. The college’s balance of high academic standards and commitment to research and service stands out.

Carleton College in Minnesota rises to number two this year, on the strength of the fourth-highest number of graduates who went on to earn PhDs. Number three Berea College continues its remarkable policy of charging no tuition to a student body of first-generation college students. More than a quarter of students attending twelfth-ranked Knox College in Illinois, site of a recent economic policy speech from President Barack Obama, are eligible for Pell Grants. The college has a strong service commitment, and four in five students graduate within six years.

Succeeding Broadly

Nearly all the well-known higher education institutions in America are research universities and liberal arts colleges. These institutions compete nationally for students and serve as entryways into the corridors of power. But most college students don’t go near such places. Instead, they attend so-called master’s and baccalaureate institutions that accept the large majority of applicants and draw most of their students from their local region. Some achieve results that far outstrip their better-known peers.

Two historically black institutions—Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Tuskegee University in Alabama—top our ranking of baccalaureate institutions. Elizabeth City reports an average net price of only $909, enrolls a student body that is 80 percent low income, and helps nearly half of them graduate on time. Tuskegee, which has strengths in architecture, engineering, and veterinary medicine, tops all baccalaureate universities nationwide in research.

Truman State University in Missouri, the third-ranked master’s university, is in the top thirty nationwide in both the percentage of graduates who enter the Peace Corps and those who serve in ROTC. It also sends large numbers of undergraduates on to successfully complete PhDs. Truman State is unusually successful in not just graduating students but also preparing them to make lasting contributions to society. It does this for a net price of roughly $12,000 per year, much less than the private institutions that are similarly ranked.

A New Federalism

The Washington Monthly’s college guide demonstrates that it’s possible to serve a variety of public interests and provide a great college experience at the same time. The challenge is to ensure that the tides of reputational pressure, financial incentive, and regulatory policy push more colleges in this direction, not the opposite. Only one body has the influence and resources to accomplish this goal: the federal government.

For the most part, colleges have not reacted to state austerity by trimming their financial sails, despite years of growing administrative budgets. According to the nonprofit Delta Cost Project, public research universities held education and related expenditures about flat from 2009 to 2010, in the teeth of severe state budget cuts. Instead, they mostly replaced lost state dollars with tuition hikes. Because family income fell during that time for the same reasons state revenues dropped, people had less in their pockets to pay even as colleges were charging more. Federal financial aid programs made up the difference, including a tripling of the Pell Grant program’s annual appropriation to nearly $40 billion, and an expansion of federal student lending to $100 billion per year. Credit extended by Uncle Sam is providing the last dollars into the American higher education system, the money that keeps our engines of knowledge production and advanced teaching from seizing up. This is on top of billions in research funding.

But the relationship between the federal government, states, and institutions has not caught up with this new fiscal reality. Federal lawmakers continue to tiptoe around higher education policy, unwilling to offend local college presidents who insist that the principles of academic autonomy entitle them to an unlimited supply of federal money, no questions asked. In other areas of strong national interest and federal investment, like health care, there is broad consensus that organizations dependent on taxpayer support must serve the public interest. Only higher education has managed to exempt itself from this commonsense principle. This is an abnormality the nation can no longer afford.

President Obama has spoken at length about the need to provide more useful public information about how successful colleges are in helping students learn, graduate, and get jobs. He is right about this, and the Monthly has been calling for such information for many years. But behavioral science tells us that simply making data available is not enough to influence consumer and university behavior to the necessary degree. Graduation rates broken down by race and gender have been publicly available for nearly a decade, and yet people continue to enroll at universities like the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (see Jamaal Abdul-Alim, “Dropouts Tell No Tales,”), despite the fact that it routinely graduates fewer than one in five black men who enroll.

Higher education needs more accountability for success. Rich colleges that refuse to enroll a fair share of low-income students should be cut off from federal work-study and loan subsidies, and have their research dollars put under review. Institutions that persistently fail to graduate fewer students than peer institutions with similar missions and student bodies should also be put on notice. The “gainful employment” measures that were developed for programs in for-profit colleges should be extended to programs at all colleges. The most common degree in American higher education is the bachelor’s degree in business. It seems fair to assume that most business majors plan on working in businesses. We should find out if they actually succeed in that goal, and ask hard questions of colleges that load students up with debt but don’t prepare them to earn enough money to pay those loans back.

State lawmakers, meanwhile, must be told that the free ride of college budget cutting is over. The U.S. Department of Education should establish new standards of state support for higher learning, and set deadlines for states that don’t meet them. The prospect of losing federal student aid and research money would galvanize state business leaders and college officials to fight budget cuts that are currently being passed along to families who can ill afford them.

It would be easy to let the great American higher education compact gradually crumble under the weight of expediency and institutional ambition. We know this because the process is already under way. But that kind of shortsighted thinking isn’t what built America’s best colleges, and it won’t give us all the system of higher learning we badly need.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!