college campus
Credit: iStock

Compare the following two colleges: 

College A, it turns out, is Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college located in the wealthy suburbs north of New York City. College B is Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system. Sarah Lawrence has all the trappings of an elite institution: national name recognition, beautiful brick buildings, and a long list of famous alumni, from J. J. Abrams to Barbara Walters. It’s the kind of place people might think of when they imagine the quintessential college experience.

Baruch? Not so much. It has no traditional campus and sits in an unglamorous part of Midtown Manhattan. Nearly half of its students are the first in their family to go to college. If you’re not from the New York area, you probably haven’t heard of it at all. Even if you are, you might think of it as a perfectly fine public school, but not elite. And yet the two colleges are quite comparable academically. 

Here’s where they’re not comparable at all: cost. The average student from a household making less than $75,000 a year will pay a net price of $24,682 per year to attend Sarah Lawrence. At Baruch, the same student will pay $4,128. (Almost all students at Baruch pay in-state tuition.) 

If you’re surprised to learn that a more prestigious and expensive college is arguably less selective than a public commuter school, don’t feel too bad. (Selectivity includes acceptance rates, but also the academic qualifications of incoming students.) It’s how we’ve been trained to think about higher education in this country. With thousands of colleges in the United States, and so many factors by which we could potentially judge them, we tend to fall back on vague indicia of prestige and name recognition. In other words, we—especially, but far from exclusively, people from well-to-do backgrounds—tend to think of “good schools” as the places where rich people send their kids. That goes a long way to explaining why so many people are capable of looking at a place like Baruch, a highly selective college that produces good outcomes for students for an incredibly low price—where, in fact, Pell Grant–eligible students (a shorthand for low-income) are an amazing 8 percent more likely to graduate than other students—and think it’s somehow “worse” than Sarah Lawrence.

Selectivity is at the heart of most conversations about college quality. But, during the fifteen years that the Washington Monthly has published its college rankings, we have proudly paid very little attention to selectivity. Why? Because the media’s obsession with simplistic and, in many cases, easily gamed measures of prestige has had deeply unfortunate consequences for American higher education by encouraging institutions to plow attention and resources into the things that matter to the U.S. News & World Report rankings—standardized test scores, faculty salary, expert opinion (that is, brand recognition)—instead of trying to help more students, especially disadvantaged ones, get a quality education. 

That’s not to say selectivity doesn’t matter. It does. Research shows that going to a more selective school has a big impact on future earnings for students whose parents are poor or didn’t go to college themselves. In fact, as damaging as our obsession with prestige can be, the real scandal of elite academia is the fact that a huge proportion of the most talented, qualified low-income students don’t even apply to selective colleges—often because they don’t think they can afford to go. 

That’s why, for the first time in five years, we’ve brought back our “affordable elite” ranking. We took the 208 most selective colleges and universities in the country, according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, and ranked them according to a combination of metrics, including net price and students’ future earnings, that track how well they promote income equality and upward social mobility. (Net price means tuition and fees, plus room and board and other expenses, minus financial aid. Last year, the average for all full-time students at four-year private nonprofit universities was about $27,000; at publics, about $15,000.)

Consider the top fifty as a great starting point for any high-achieving student looking for a college that will provide a great education while improving—not sandbagging—their financial prospects. Consider the bottom fifty as a guide to those institutions that are trading on brand-name reputations while either educating very few low-income students, ripping off the ones who do attend, or both. 

The Ivy Plus 

“Affordable” is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Stanford, possibly the most selective national university in the country. (Last year, it only accepted 4.3 percent of applicants.) But Stanford shines in our social mobility metrics by having the lowest net price—only $2,800 for families making less than $75,000 a year—of the entire list. (The average for the top fifty colleges is $10,323.) It also comes near the top of the field for students’ future earnings, and, somewhat more surprisingly, educates an impressive percentage of first-generation students. 

Stanford is part of a broader and very welcome trend: many of the wealthiest and most prestigious colleges in the country have made a serious commitment to providing generous financial aid to students who need it. That helps explain why six Ivy League universities, plus MIT and Duke, also appear in our top fifty. 

Those colleges, in other words, are an incredible deal for the middle-class and low-income students they accept. Where they still lag behind is in the overall number of such students they educate. These elite, “Ivy Plus” universities have barely increased incoming class sizes for multiple generations, even as the college-going population has surged. That, of course, helps them keep the almighty acceptance rate low. So while they deserve credit for improving their financial aid packages, they also deserve reproach for not opening their doors to more deserving students. With their multibillion-dollar endowments, they could afford it.

The Publics 

Public universities don’t tend to dominate national rankings of elite universities, but many perform extremely well on our list. Most noteworthy are the colleges that make up the University of California system. Three of them appear in our top ten, and it’s easy to see why: they each graduate around 1,500 Pell students each year, or roughly five times the number that Harvard does—a truly impressive contribution to upward mobility for students from modest backgrounds. Recognition is also due to the University of Florida. While it’s best known for its big-time football and basketball programs, Florida’s flagship public university grants more bachelor’s degrees to Pell-eligible students than any other school on our list, and charges even less than the colleges in the California system. 

But the news from the public sector isn’t all so great. When the defending national champion Clemson Tigers take the football field against in-state rival University of South Carolina this fall, both teams will be representing big-name public universities that do a lousy job furthering the public good. Students who attend those schools end up earning significantly less money than expected given their demographic and academic makeup. Graduation rates for Pell students lag behind the non-Pell population by double digits. Along with the University of Alabama–Huntsville (where an appalling 40 percent of students haven’t paid back $1 in loan principal five years after graduating), Auburn University, and the University of Pittsburgh, these public institutions need to start remembering that the public is who they’re supposed to be serving. 

Private Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges

Most of the household names toward the bottom of our list, however, are private nonprofits. Tucked together in the bottom quartile are a handful of well-regarded liberal arts colleges, including Oberlin and Bard, ranked 179 and 180, where students from families making under $75,000 a year pay $17,307 and $20,096 on average, respectively, and which educate a trivial number of low-income students. (Sarah Lawrence is number 156.) We also find near the bottom a number of big-name national universities with outrageous price tags and poor outcomes, like Tulane ($20,003), Hofstra ($30,010), and Baylor ($28,484). Baylor at least has graduated a substantial 467 Pell students on average over the last two years; but given the amount of debt those students have to take on and their low earning potential ($50,899 per year, about $6,000 less than expected), they’d likely be better off going elsewhere. 

To be fair to the bottom dwellers, it’s a lot easier to give generous financial aid packages while remaining academically elite when you’ve got a massive endowment, like Harvard. But that excuse only goes so far. Let’s do one more college comparison. Georgetown’s endowment per student is about $90,000—far less than other prestigious private national universities. Yet Georgetown costs middle- and low-income families an average of only $10,560; graduates 222 Pell students a year, at only a 1 percent lower rate than the rest of the student body; and sends graduates into careers that earn a median of $90,491 ten years after entering. As a result, it ranks tenth on our list. 

The University of Tulsa, meanwhile, has roughly $250,000 per student. Yet it places dead last, largely because it costs the same families $20,787 and graduates only seventy-six Pell students per year—at a 15 percent lower rate than non-Pell students. And its graduates earn a median of only $46,954, more than $14,000 less than their demographic and academic profiles would predict. Endowment, in other words, isn’t destiny. Intentions matter more than anything, and too many colleges with ample resources are failing their students, and the country, because they apparently just don’t care enough to do better.

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

Gilad Edelman

Follow Gilad on Twitter @GiladEdelman . Gilad Edelman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a politics writer for WIRED.