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Last August, President Barack Obama traveled to the State University of New York at Buffalo to give a speech about higher education. It began with the usual tributes to college as a pillar of American opportunity and economic renewal. “A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future,” the president said, repeating a message that most students have heard, ad nauseam, for their entire lives.

But then Obama’s tone changed. He reflected on his own experience as a college debtor, how he and his wife had been making loan payments into their forties, when they should have been saving for retirement and their own children’s education. How previous generations had made a compact with the future by financing affordable colleges, a commitment that budget-cutting states were in the process of tearing down. How students were being forced to choose between a life without a college diploma and college debt they can’t afford to repay.

The solution, the president said, was something unprecedented in the history of national higher education policy: a new federal rating system.

“We’re going to start rating colleges,” said Obama, “not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities—you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

This was welcome news at the Washington Monthly, since we’ve been publishing just such a ranking since 2005. In 2012, we even added in a special “bang for the buck” measure.

Our rankings have always rejected the idea that expense, luxury, and exclusivity should be held up as the highest values for colleges and students to aspire to. Instead, we ask a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, doesn’t just affect students. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they put students from lower-income families on 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 government-financed financial aid, tax breaks, and other spending.

To identify the most public-minded institutions, we rank every four-year college and university in America based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of crediting colleges that reject the most applicants, we recognize those that do the best job of enrolling and graduating low-income students. Our rankings measure both pure research spending and success in preparing undergraduates to earn PhDs. And by giving equal weight to public service, we identify colleges that build a sense of obligation to their communities and the nation at large.

The complete list of our national university rankings is here, the liberal arts colleges are here, and the master’s universities and baccalaureate colleges are here and 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 the U.S. News & World Report fare much worse when ranked according to what they do for the country. On the other hand, colleges that are routinely buried in the bottom tiers of the U.S. News rankings are top performers on our list. Here are some of the highlights of the 2014 Washington Monthly college rankings.

Public Interest

On the U.S. News list, all the top twenty universities are private, as are nearly all the top colleges. This is by design: under that magazine’s metrics, schools get ahead based on the number of students they don’t admit, and private schools are the most selective. Public institutions that serve a wide range of students fare much better by our measures. Fourteen of our twenty highest-ranked universities are taxpayer supported.

Strikingly, four of the top five institutions on our list are University of California campuses. That state’s system has a distinct blend of size, diversity, and research excellence. By enrolling top students from a huge state with a highly varied population, UC campuses are able to balance academic excellence with scientific prowess and a commitment to enrolling low-income students that is unmatched at similar national universities.

The UC campus in Riverside, ranked number two this year, stands out as a model for other public universities to follow. Riverside falls below most of its system peers by conventional measures. It’s not part of the ultra-exclusive Association of American Universities. It doesn’t enroll students with SAT scores so high that their graduation is all but guaranteed. Instead, Riverside is unusually focused on social mobility. Since 2006, its enrollment has grown by 25 percent. Half of all freshmen are first-generation college students, and the campus is the most racially and ethnically diverse within the UC system. Riverside’s focus on public service exceeds that of almost every other national university.

Other universities that, like Riverside, enroll a majority of students eligible for the federal Pell Grant program while graduating substantially larger numbers of students than similar institutions include the University of Texas at El Paso and Florida International University. Both are ranked much higher by our criteria than by conventional, status-obsessed rankings. Georgia Tech, a highly respected public engineering school, has a net price of less than $8,500 per year, a bargain compared to other public schools whose tuition nears $20,000.

While some private universities are highly rated by our criteria, they don’t dominate the upper echelon of the Monthly list. Many of them are ignoring their obligations, as tax-exempt institutions, to promote the public welfare. Catholic University in Washington, D.C., takes an uncharitable approach to college pricing, for example, with only 13 percent of students eligible for Pell Grants and an astonishing average net price of nearly $35,000. It ranks 264th on our list. George Mason, a libertarian-tinged public university in Virginia, has, perhaps unsurprisingly, terrible public service numbers. Few graduates go on to earn PhDs. It ranks 210th.

Other big research universities rank higher because of their contributions to scholarship, but still lag behind their vaunted conventional reputations. Brown, Northwestern, Georgetown, Boston College, Boston University, Indiana University, and Clemson all fail to crack our top 100 national universities.

Liberal Learning

Our liberal arts college ranking also reveals institutions that excel in surprising ways. Bryn Mawr comes in first for the third consecutive year. While expensive, it combines a strong commitment to service with a research focus unusual for liberal arts colleges. Historically, women’s colleges have always done well in our rankings, reflecting their continued focus on justice, scholarship, and the public good.

Berea College stands out for its one-of-a-kind no-tuition policy, selective admissions, and mission to serve first-generation low-income students in Appalachia. Traditional liberal arts leader Amherst College has increased its commitment to enrolling and graduating low-income students in recent years, while using its ample endowment to keep prices manageable. Number two Carleton College in Minnesota sends more students on to the Peace Corps and PhD programs, combined, than any other liberal arts college in America.

Several historically black colleges also do well on the liberal arts ranking. Nearly 90 percent of students attending Tougaloo College, located north of Jackson, Mississippi, are from low-income families. Its 46 percent graduation rate well exceeds that of demographically similar schools. And because Tougaloo’s average net price is under $9,000, only a third of students have to take out student loans to attend, far below the national average.

Succeeding Broadly

When we first started ranking colleges, we stuck to the research universities and liberal arts colleges that often recruit nationwide. But that leaves out hundreds of less selective regional colleges and universities with academic missions that are broader than liberal arts schools and graduate programs that focus more on professional training than scientific research. By ranking these so-called master’s and baccalaureate institutions, we found more examples of colleges that stand out in their contributions to the public welfare.

Like last year, two historically black institutions—Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Tuskegee University in Alabama—rank first and second among all baccalaureate institutions, each serving a majority of low-income students and graduating far more than expected. ECSU is also extraordinarily inexpensive. Remarkably, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina moved earlier this year to shut Elizabeth City down, on the grounds that it is “unprofitable.” While the proposal failed after outcry from alumni and others, the fact that the idea was even raised shows the importance of ranking colleges based on the value they provide.

Among master’s institutions, the State University of New York at Geneseo provides an inexpensive liberal arts education that’s a fraction of the price of other schools in the Northeast. Trinity University in Texas serves a diverse student body and sends more undergrads on to PhDs than any other college in its category. Evergreen State College could have rested on its laurels after producing the titanic feminist punk band Sleater-Kinney in the 1990s, but it continues to enroll an economically varied student population and ranks number fourteen on our list.

Fighting Special Interests

President Obama faces three obstacles in reshaping federal higher education policy to better recognize colleges like those we’ve highlighted above. First, both the academy and the American public remain deeply invested in the way of understanding excellence in higher education that dominates rankings like those produced by the U.S. News & World Report. People want to believe that the most famous colleges are also the best, that higher education works like a virtuous meritocracy, rather than a system for transmitting privilege from the fortunate of one generation to the next.

Second, the existing higher education elite maintains a well-oiled lobbying machine in Washington, D.C. (see Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus, “Who’s Afraid of College Rankings?,” page 43), dedicated to beating down any and all ideas that threaten the primacy of established institutions. The day after the Buffalo speech, the president of the powerful American Council on Education was quoted as saying, “We will be vigilant in working to prevent tying the receipt of aid to metrics, which could have a profoundly negative impact on the very students and families the administration is trying to help,” which, if nothing else, proves that the A. O. Hirschman-style “argument from perversity” is alive and well.

Third, important aspects of higher education success have yet to be quantified in ways that lend themselves to college rankings. Here, too, the higher education lobby is actively fighting to prevent development of data systems that could provide more accurate information about their members’ success. But this is a losing battle in the long run. The federal government already has the ability to calculate the exact earnings of the graduates of specific colleges and individual academic programs within colleges, by matching enrollment and financial aid information with data gathered by the Social Security Administration. This kind of data will likely become public in the near future, and will add an element of real-world outcomes that all existing college rankings, including our own, currently lack. And while short-term political battles can be won and lost, the future will have more information, not less.

Which is why the president’s rating plan is so important. Students and parents need a neutral source of high-quality information about prospective colleges, good and bad (see Ben Miller, “America’s Worst Colleges,” page 36), regulators need to hone in on the worst performers, and the colleges that are truly working on behalf of their country should be celebrated. Someday, we hope our rankings will do nothing more than update the consensus view of higher education excellence. Until then, we’ll keep looking for new ways to identify schools that have been ignored for too long.