Thirteen years ago, the Washington Monthly set out to solve a problem. The higher education market was dominated by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which reward wealth, fame, and exclusivity. College leaders responded to the temptation of better U.S. News scores by raising prices, chasing status, and marketing themselves to the children of privilege.
We thought the nation needed exactly the opposite: smart, well-run colleges that enrolled students from all walks of life and helped them earn a high-quality diploma at an affordable price. Colleges that instilled a sense of service and public obligation while producing groundbreaking research.
So we decided to do something about it and create our own ranking—not based on what colleges do for themselves, but on what they do for their country. After all, everyone benefits when colleges push the boundaries of scientific discovery and provide paths to opportunity for the next generation of low-income students. And everyone pays for college, through taxes and other forms of public support.
Today, the Washington Monthly rankings are often listed alongside (or above) U.S. News when colleges tout their national standing. We rate schools on three equally weighted criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of rewarding schools that reject 95 percent of applicants, we give high marks to colleges that enroll lots of low-income students and help them graduate and earn a good living without too much debt. We factor in pure research spending and the number of undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs. And we give extra weight to colleges that send their graduates out into the world to serve the community at large.
For most of our rankings history, policymakers followed our lead. Both the Bush and Obama administrations challenged the entrenched higher education lobby to disclose more information about student success. Innovative institutions began touting their ability to enroll bigger, more diverse classes and help them land good jobs after graduation.
Then Donald Trump was elected, and forward momentum at the federal level ground to a halt. In last year’s College Guide, we speculated about how bad a higher education secretary Betsy DeVos might turn out to be. She has somehow been even worse. Data gathering has stopped while DeVos and a collection of former for-profit college executives have begun ripping up Obama-era regulations designed to protect students from predatory schools.
The human cost of these actions will be enormous. But the higher education sector has an opportunity to push back, by taking a strong public stand against the Trump agenda, and by offering students a better deal than the boiler rooms full of telemarketers who are doubtless filling up now that DeVos has declared open season on vulnerable students.
There are plenty of examples to choose from: colleges and universities you’ve likely never heard of that do a fantastic job of opening their doors to a wide array of students and giving them a great twenty-first-century education. Indeed, that’s probably why you’ve never heard of them—because the lure of wealth, fame, and exclusivity is still a powerful force in defining higher education excellence.
We know colleges can do better. Here are some of the institutions leading the way.
The upper echelon of the U.S. News ranking of national universities—big, research-focused institutions that draw students from around the country—is a who’s who of expensive private schools. Not a single public university makes their top twenty. Ours, by contrast, includes a range of great public schools, from research powerhouses in the University of California system to land-grant universities like Texas A&M to regional innovators like Utah State. These schools do more than just enroll enough low-income students to keep up appearances. At some, first-generation and needy students make up nearly half the freshman class.
To be sure, there are some familiar names on top of our list: Harvard, Stanford, MIT. This is a testament to the fact that you truly can have it all—if you already have it all. There is a tiny coterie of incredibly wealthy institutions whose multibillion-dollar endowments allow them to keep real tuition low for non-rich students while producing sky-high graduation rates and attracting star researchers. The problem is that this organizational model is neither replicable nor expandable. The really interesting universities are just a little farther down our list.
Augusta University doesn’t even get an individual ranking in U.S. News: it’s listed as “#231–#300,” in a seventy-way tie for last place. Yet in our rankings, it comes in at number 30. Augusta is a public research university in Georgia that enrolls an economically and racially diverse student body, nearly two-thirds of whom are women. With a focus on in-demand jobs in the health care sector, Augusta graduates earn far more money than our statistical models predict and pay their loans back at a much higher rate, all for an affordable net price of about $10,000 per year for families earning less than $75,000.
Michigan Technological University isn’t nearly as well known as the other public universities in that state that routinely compete for football and basketball championships. We rank it number 36 because it scores well on all three of our metrics, combining solid social mobility and research results with stellar public service numbers. In addition to sending an unusual number of students into ROTC and the Peace Corps, MTU got the highest possible score on our new “voting engagement” measure by participating in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, voluntarily publishing student voting rates, and releasing an action plan to improve civic engagement.
National Louis University, a private nonprofit university near Chicago, sits just outside our top fifty because it has a much higher graduation rate than our models predict given the large number of low-income students it enrolls. National Louis is also one of only a handful of universities with a higher graduation rate for students who are eligible for Pell Grants than for non-Pell students, another new measure we added this year.
Then there are the universities at the bottom of our rankings, many of which enjoy some measure of prestige or success in the national market. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. regularly denounces federal involvement in higher education—except when it comes to filling his school’s bank account, which overflows with revenues from federal grant and loan programs. But while Liberty is happy to take money from Pell Grant students, it doesn’t seem to care much about helping them graduate. Liberty has one of the worst Pell/non-Pell graduation rate disparities in the nation. This is probably why, five years after leaving Liberty, barely half of students have paid back even a single dollar of principal on their student loans. Liberty also conducts scant funded research and sends a minimal number of students on to earn PhDs.
There are public universities in the lower reaches of our rankings—we’re looking at you, Eastern Michigan and the University of Kansas—along with a bunch of overpriced private universities pretending, too often successfully, that being good and being expensive are exactly the same. If you’re thinking about sending your kids to Drexel, Hofstra, or Marquette, think again.
Then there’s our third-lowest-ranked national school, Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. In 1900, Catholic was one of the fourteen original founders of the Association of American Universities. Nearly all the rest—including Harvard, Princeton, and Berkeley—are near the top of our rankings. Catholic’s service and research numbers are in the middle of the pack. It ranks near the bottom overall because its social mobility numbers are remarkably bad.
Only 13 percent of Catholic U students qualify for Pell Grants, and only 14 percent are first-generation undergrads, among the stingiest rates nationwide. But despite enrolling few low- and moderate-income students, it charges them a net price of nearly $32,000 per year, among the very highest. Catholic isn’t just indifferent to the idea of providing low-income students with an affordable college education. It appears to be openly hostile. God said he who oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker. We agree.
Liberal Arts Colleges
Berea College has become our perennial top-ranked liberal arts college because of its unique mission of providing a great free education to low-income and first-generation students in Kentucky and Appalachia, with a strong commitment to service. Washington and Lee, in Virginia, climbed up to the second spot this year with strong across-the-board graduation rates, very high earnings among alumni, and generous financial aid for low- and moderate-income students. Harvey Mudd College, in California, at number 3, sends more graduates into PhD programs than any other liberal arts school.
Women’s colleges often score well on our rankings, including high marks for Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Barnard. Salem College, in North Carolina, was originally founded as a girls’ school by the Moravian Church in 1772, making it the oldest women’s college in the South. More than half of Salem women receive Pell Grants, a much higher rate than our models predict given the school’s solid ACT scores. It also graduates Pell students at unusually high rates. Agnes Scott College in Georgia is yet another women’s school that outperforms on the Washington Monthly rankings, with admirable social mobility and research numbers and strong ongoing commitment to the Peace Corps.
While national universities and the upper echelon of liberal arts colleges tend to dominate the national sense of what higher education is and ought to be, most students go elsewhere. Regional campuses, which focus more on teaching and draw most of their students from nearby, are the workhorses of the four-year sector, enrolling tens of thousands of students who have jobs, families, homes off campus, or all of the above. Students like these, whom the government classifies as “nontraditional,” in fact make up the majority of America’s undergrads.
Just as University of California schools crowd the top of our national universities list, the California State University campuses at San Bernardino, Stanislaus, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles rank third, fourth, fifth, and sixth respectively on our ranking of master’s-granting universities. They are topped only by SUNY-Geneseo, a highly selective liberal arts school within the competitive and affordable SUNY system, and Evergreen State College, which will be our number 1 master’s campus as long as it continues to have stellar social mobility and service numbers while producing alumnae like Kathleen Hanna and two of the founding members of the rock band Sleater-Kinney.
Our bottom-ranked master’s institution, all the way down at number 695, is South University’s online campus. Although located in Georgia, South University is actually named for John T. South, who bought the unaccredited Draughon’s Practical Business College in 1974 and rode a wave of federal student loan money to modest fame and great fortune, christening his college after himself—and prompting a lawsuit from the actual University of the South—before selling it for $50 million to the notorious for-profit operator EDMC, which further expanded into the online gold rush in the 2000s, producing student outcomes so terrible that it fell into hot water with its accreditor. EDMC was ultimately saved when the school was in turn bought by a Pentecostal “nonprofit” called the Dream Center Foundation, using a loan partially financed by the chair of the foundation itself, thus relieving it of for-profit oversight. South University Online has a six-year graduation rate of 2 percent for Pell and non-Pell students alike. It conducts no research and provides no service, and nearly three-quarters of its former students can’t pay down their loans.
Although Betsy DeVos made her bones as a pro-privatization K–12 education reformer, her lasting legacy, if any, will likely be in higher education. She and her team of industry executives have aggressively moved to gut regulations that stand between the people who operate institutions like South University and enormous piles of student and taxpayer money. And when students are inevitably defrauded, DeVos is working hard to make it nearly impossible for their crushing student loan balances to be forgiven.
A malign side effect of the DeVos deregulatory agenda will be a reduction in the flow of useful information. Regulations require data. The earnings numbers we use in our social mobility rankings, for example, come from an agreement between the Department of Education and the IRS to generate the information needed to hold for-profit colleges accountable for whether program graduates make enough money to pay back their loans. If those regulations are erased, as DeVos is explicitly planning, the need for supporting data disappears. Even in this corner of the public policy universe, the Trump administration’s prostration to the desires of big business is making the world a worse place to be. (DeVos has proposed to disclose new information about how much graduates of individual programs within colleges earn, a good idea that originated during the Obama administration. But following through on that pledge would involve a commitment to the public good that has so far been lacking.)
The good news is that traditions and mechanisms for creating better information aren’t erased so easily. The data spigot is a lot easier to turn back on once it has been built in the first place. There’s a growing appetite among students and policymakers for authentic information about college quality—not the number of treadmills in the student athletic center or the size of the football stadium, but real data about how colleges prepare people for life, citizenship, and careers. The Washington Monthly rankings are part of a larger project to fundamentally change the way people understand higher learning. It began long before Trump was inflicted on the American body politic, and it will continue long after he’s gone.