Every year, America’s media outlets devote gallons of real and digital ink to parsing America’s “best colleges.” As application and acceptance deadlines near, countless stories, blog posts, and journal entries appear, following well-off students and documenting their fears about landing spots in their dream schools. The market for information about top colleges—who gets in, who is left out, what happens inside—seems bottomless.

Yet the truth is that students choosing among selective schools are making largely inconsequential decisions. Whether it’s a northeastern private college, a well-regarded midwestern public institution, or some other school rich with financial and reputational resources, any option will provide students with what really matters: overwhelmingly high odds of graduating from a well-recognized college. For them, even the dreaded “safety school” is likely still a better option than the best choice available to large numbers of students.

Less-fortunate students, by contrast, are often forced to choose among the many colleges that get lumped into broad lower tiers on best colleges lists, or from private for-profit colleges that are not even ranked at all. Many of these colleges are dropout factories, where students are unlikely to graduate and prices, debt levels, and student loan default rates are high. For these students, the crucial question is where not to go to college. When you’re wandering through a minefield with destructive options that lead to high loan debt and no degree, it’s worth having a map.

Yet the newsstands don’t sell guides to America’s worst colleges. Nobody writes stories about high school seniors beset with anxiety about whether to attend a community college with a rock-bottom graduation rate, a nearby private college with shaky finances, or a shady for-profit institution. The few rankings that even broach the subject tend to be either mildly humorous attempts from a decade ago (“Worst Trust-Fund-Baby College”) or ones that turn upside-down a list that started out as another best colleges exercise.

Worst colleges lists are uncommon in part because they represent a more difficult analytic challenge. The indicators that put a college on the top lists tend to be highly correlated at the top end. A school that takes one out of every ten applicants and sits on a billion-dollar endowment is very likely to have low class sizes, high SAT scores, and high graduation rates. The rich tend to be rich all around.

It’s not so simple on the other end. Some nonselective colleges produce admirable graduation rates at an affordable price to students. Others are lucky to see one-fifth of starting students on through to graduation. Some charge sky-high prices and graduate students with large amounts of debt while others may be quite cheap.

Creating a list of the worst colleges also requires making judgments about the importance of different problems in higher education. For example, a worst colleges list has to decide whether a high-student-debt college with a so-so graduation rate should be ranked higher or lower than a cheaper option with minimal debt but even fewer completers. The Obama administration is currently grappling with exactly these problems as it works to create a credible federal college ratings system that could potentially identify colleges so bad that they lose eligibility for financial aid.

To better understand the challenge the administration has taken on, and further the cause of helping students in dire need of good advice about where not to enroll, the Washington Monthly examined 1,700 four-year colleges and universities and used a different rankings methodology to identify the twenty worst colleges in America. Here’s what we found.

Ranking #1: The Basics

The simplest way to define a bad college is as a place that charges students large amounts of money, probably financed by debt they cannot afford, to receive an education so terrible that most students drop out before graduation. Translated in the parlance of federal statistics, that means a high “net price” (tuition minus grants and scholarships), high average student debt, a high “cohort default rate” (a federal measure that tracks the percentage of each college’s freshman class that defaults on their student loans within three years of beginning to repay them), and a low graduation rate.

Taking those four measures and weighting them equally shows that students would be well served to avoid the New England Institute of Art, a private for-profit college, where the typical net price is $29,700, median debt is $30,600, 16 percent of borrowers default on their loans, and just 36 percent of students graduate. Though one-fourth of the colleges in Ranking #1 are in Illinois, they also include colleges across the country, from California to Massachusetts and Florida to Washington. But there’s little diversity in terms of college type. The list features eleven private for-profit colleges and nine private non-profit institutions. No public universities are represented.

This raises some questions. Is a low graduation rate exactly as bad as a high net price? Is it fair to look just at cohort default rates and borrowing amounts without considering the frequency with which students turn to debt?

Ranking #2: Completion Matters

While it’s certainly possible to pay too much money for a bachelor’s degree, degree holders are still, on average, much better off economically than other workers. The second version of our worst colleges list makes completion worth 45 percent of a college’s score, instead of 25 percent. It uses two measures of completion: the bachelor’s degree graduation rate and the number of degrees awarded for every 100 full-time equivalent students. The second measure addresses concerns about students who may be left out of the federal graduation rate formula, which only includes students who have never enrolled in college before and are doing so as full-time students. It’s also important to examine how many students borrow to finance their bad educations. Ranking #2 considers a college’s borrowing rate and gives it equal weight to the cohort default rate, median borrowing amount, and net price.

Weighting results this way does not look good for Saint Augustine’s University, which is a private nonprofit historically black institution in Raleigh, North Carolina. The school actually has a higher cohort default rate (30 percent) than bachelor’s degree graduation rate (28 percent). It also had nearly as many students who defaulted on student loans (311) as earned credentials (335) within a two-year period. Raleigh’s retention rate is in the sixth percentile nationally, and its median debt is $22,500.

Like the first list, there are no public colleges and the majority of institutions are for-profit. But only four institutions show up on both lists. And though each has three branches of the Art Institutes, they are not the same campuses.

Some of the colleges on the second list also exemplify the tough choices that have to be addressed in a worst colleges list. For example, because many students attending Stratford University in Fairfax, Virginia (the sixth-worst school), attend part-time, only 9 percent of its students are included in the group used to calculate graduation rates. Is it fair to place 30 percent of its score on a measure that might reflect less than one out of every ten of its students? Balancing borrowing and default rates can also be difficult. Students attending Westwood College in the Chicago Loop borrow more money than students at Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma ($12,900 versus $11,000), but are less likely to borrow, with a 75 percent borrowing rate at Westwood versus 92 percent at Bacone.

Ranking #3: A Troubled Legacy

To adjust for such differences, the third list adjusts each college’s debt statistics using its borrowing rate. This acknowledges that a college where 90 percent of students borrow and many default is much different than a college where only 10 percent of students borrow and, of those, many default. This grouping also sidesteps the problem of part-time students being excluded from graduation rates by only counting the ratio of degrees per 100 full-time equivalent students, which includes all students, full-time and part-time.

The resulting list treads on the uncomfortable territory that underlies many debates about higher education, and will surely be considered by the Obama administration ratings makers: How should we think about historically black colleges and universities? HBCUs are an important part of the nation’s higher education legacy. They provided educational opportunities for minority students at a time when discrimination meant that it was very difficult for them to turn elsewhere. And they continue to do so today— for instance, two selective HBCUs, Fisk and Spelman, make our “Best Bang for the Buck” list (page 26), while other HBCUs, like Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, have impressive records of helping often poorly prepared minority students earn degrees. But many HBCUs also struggle with results, sometimes because of underfunding, sometimes for other reasons.

HBCUs do not fare well on this third ranking, accounting for twelve of the twenty colleges. This includes two public HBCUs, Central State University in Ohio and Mississippi Valley State University. Seven of the others are proprietary colleges. Ferrum College in Virginia (see “Held Accountable,” page 40) is the only institution not in either category.

Ranking #4: Different Kinds of Students

It’s impossible to debate methods for identifying good and bad colleges without considering whether college outcomes should be seen in the demographic context of their students. The Washington Monthly’s various rankings do this explicitly by crediting colleges that do a better-than-average job of recruiting and graduating lower-income students (as measured by the percentage of Pell Grants)—students who, because they typically come to college less prepared, tend to graduate at lower rates. For Ranking #4 we added in this calculation plus the net price of attendance for Pell Grant recipients. We also factored in the share of students who are black or Hispanic, to credit institutions that serve diverse student bodies, and the graduation rate for those students.

This ranking looks very different from the others. The HBCUs are gone, and private for-profit colleges only account for five of the schools on the list. Instead, the list is dominated by small and expensive private nonprofit colleges. Five are located in the Northeast, such as Southern Vermont College and Becker College in Massachusetts. The rest are spread throughout the country with the noticeable exception of the Deep South. These are all colleges that have a moderate to high percentage of Pell Grant students but are not particularly racially diverse. They charge high prices, but those costs do not translate into student success.

Which Is the Worst?

The high quality of America’s best colleges creates a strong public belief that all U.S. institutions of higher education must be of similar quality. Top colleges lists reinforce this assumption, while the obsession over admissions sucks up all the air in public debates over college quality. This is a boon for those schools that are decidedly not world-class and that struggle with debt, cost, and completion. They fly under the radar with little attention and unearned positive reputations. And only the students who have the misfortune to enroll at one of these places find out the truth. If we want to improve national attainment and deal with college cost, that cannot continue. It’s time to get these colleges some attention by putting them at the top of the list.

Ben Miller

Ben Miller is a senior policy analyst in the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program. He was previously a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Education.