Students walk on university campus quad
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It’s safe to say that the current generation of college students is getting an education unlike any other in American history. They spent the spring and summer in pandemic-induced disruption, isolation, and stress, with vanished jobs and internships, taking hastily arranged online classes, and, in most cases, paying the same tuition that they would have if they had been on campus.

Check out the complete 2020 Washington Monthly rankings here.

Now, as students are beginning their fall semester, the virus is still not under control. Most have been offered the option of continuing to take online classes while being urged, and in some cases all but forced, to move back on campus and attend in-person classes by colleges that need the dorm revenue—a vast socio-epidemiological experiment that will likely be abandoned amid sickness and unnecessary death. Those attending poorly resourced state schools—disproportionately minority and low-income students—probably aren’t even getting the benefit of the weekly or daily virus testing that elite private schools are providing.

Current college students have also gotten a real-world education in the power of political activism. This summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, large numbers of them took to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter. In November, these same students will have a chance to vote in a national election, many for the first time. It will, to say the least, be no ordinary election—especially for young people, who, by definition, will have to live with the consequences longer than older Americans.

These searing generational experiences are likely to have long-term consequences none of us can predict. But it is a good bet that in the short term they will lead today’s college students to demand fundamental change from the institutions they experience most directly: the colleges and universities they attend.

What might they demand? Well, for starters, they are going to want to see schools make a greater effort to do right by students who are Black, Latino, and Native American, or who come from low-income backgrounds. They are going to want to see colleges double down on their efforts to produce the research and technologies that will create the new high-paying jobs they will need to sustain themselves, as well as the solutions to climate change and other existential threats. And they are going to want their institutions not just to tolerate their civic activism but to sincerely encourage it.

What today’s students could use is a reliable tool to gauge how well their colleges measure up on these demands. As it happens, there is one. The Washington Monthly’s annual college guide ranks individual schools based on how well they promote upward mobility, research, and civic engagement. These criteria are quite different from those employed by U.S. News & World Report, which ranks schools based on their wealth, exclusivity, and prestige. The resulting lists of best colleges are, naturally, quite different too, and those differences reveal a great deal about what is right and wrong with the American higher education system. 

The first thing to note about our top 20 national universities is that 11 of them are state schools. By contrast, in the U.S. News rankings, 19 of the top 20 national universities are elite private ones. The public universities on our list range from prestigious flagships like UCLA—the only public university in U.S. News’s top 20—to institutions that don’t even crack U.S. News’s top 50—including the University of Washington, Texas A&M, and Utah State University. In fact, Utah State, number 10 on our list, ranks number 254 on U.S. News’s.  

You might also notice that a number of the elite private national universities that score in U.S. News’s top 20 do less well on ours—including Northwestern (number 30 on our list), Brown (37), and Johns Hopkins (54). There are differences, too, in the liberal arts category. Berea College, ranked third on our list, is 46th on U.S. News’s. St. Mary’s College of Maryland, number 29 on our list, is number 92 on theirs.

There’s a simple explanation for these divergences: The two magazines are, in many ways, not measuring the same things. U.S. News relies on such metrics as student SAT/ACT scores, alumni donations, and the results of a survey it conducts of academics and administrators, asking them to gauge the reputations of their peer institutions. These aren’t bad measures if you’re an upper-income family trying to get your kid into a fancy school. None of this data, however, factors into the Washington Monthly’s rankings, because we don’t think it’s relevant to the question we’re asking, which is this: Which colleges deliver the best results for taxpayers—who invest more than $150 billion annually in student financial aid—and for typical students, especially those who are minorities, the first in their family to attend college, or of modest means?

Instead, the Washington Monthly’s rankings are based on data U.S. News incorporates barely or not at all. These include the net price a school charges lower-income families (part of our social mobility category), how many of its students go on to get PhDs (part of our research category), and the degree to which it encourages its students to vote (part of our service category). 

The most noteworthy overlap between our lists and U.S. News’s is at the tippy top—the Stanfords, Harvards, and Yales of the country. These universities are not only prestigious and selective. They also provide generous financial aid to the lower-income students they admit. The operative phrase, however, is “lower-income students they admit”—because they don’t admit many. For purposes of comparison, consider the University of Florida, ranked 15th on the Monthly’s rankings. Last year UF graduated more low-income students receiving Pell Grants than did Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Duke combined. (It is also the seventh-biggest producer of science and engineering PhDs in the country and gets a near-perfect score for its support of student voting.) And it manages this extraordinary feat without the kind of huge endowments that the Ivy League schools use to fund their student aid packages—endowments larger than the GDP of many countries. So while the elite schools deserve kudos for generosity toward their lower-income students, their model of financing—graduate students who go on to insanely lucrative careers in investment banking and then kick back a portion of their outsized gains to the university—isn’t exactly admirable, or remotely replicable. 

This gets at a larger point: The system in which colleges are forced to operate—and that the U.S. News rankings both reflect and enable—is rigged in favor of the wealthy and well connected, and that system has to change, for the good of the country. 

You can see this most clearly in the fate of many small, private nonprofit schools that aren’t havens for wealthy students. Hiram College of Ohio, for instance, has a proud history—President James Garfield was an alum—and performs well on our rankings. It ranks third on our bachelor’s colleges list, in part for enrolling large numbers of first-generation college students and sending them off to PhD programs and the Peace Corps. But Hiram has also struggled financially. In 2014, deep in debt, it dropped several majors, including art history, and added more in-demand ones, like sports medicine. It also recently cut its tuition in an effort to attract more students. While these tough but necessary moves helped, the pandemic again throws its future into question. 

Another worthy but financially stressed institution is Canisius College, a private Jesuit school in Buffalo, New York. Canisius ranks in the top fifth of our list of master’s universities because its graduation rate is far higher than student demographics would predict, and its students go on to get PhDs at high rates. But COVID-19 has forced the college, which was already struggling, to announce layoffs and eliminate several majors. 

The pandemic may be hastening what some have long predicted: the eventual demise of many private nonprofit colleges. The vulnerable ones are those that serve ordinary rather than elite students. Open-access public colleges and universities are also at risk, not of extinction so much as of being further hollowed out by cuts to their funding from state governments whose tax revenues are plummeting. 

An influx of federal money may stave off immediate disaster. But it won’t slow the overall trend of a higher education system in which schools that attract the well-off grow richer while those that serve everyone else grow poorer—forcing non-affluent students to pay ever-higher tuition, take on ever-growing amounts of debt, and mortgage their futures.

What America needs is a New Deal for higher education—one that will reverse this trend while maintaining the institutional diversity and autonomy that has long made this country’s higher education system the envy of the world. In this issue, the longtime Washington Monthly writer and guest editor Kevin Carey proposes such a plan . We think it’s brilliant and pragmatic, and we hope you will, too. 

Change can’t come quickly enough, especially for students of color, who are hurt the most by the inequities baked into the current system. We know, for instance, that Black students disproportionately attend under-resourced community and four-year colleges; have to take on higher levels of debt than white students to pay for it, on average; graduate at far lower rates; and, even when they do graduate, earn less in the workforce. 

What we don’t know is how individual colleges contribute, for better or worse, to these outcomes. That’s because little of the federal data that researchers—and this magazine—use to assess college performance is broken down by race. Until that changes, imperfect workarounds are the best we can do. We gave it a shot in this issue by tapping a new data set from the U.S. Department of Education to create a first-ever list of colleges where majors popular with Black students lead to decent-paying jobs. 

Elsewhere in this issue, Daniel Block examines some new thinking among Black academics about how to help more students of color enter and succeed in STEM fields. Jamaal Abdul-Alim looks at a program that was wildly successful at boosting completion rates at two-year schools, and why policymakers let it wither away. And Anne Kim reports on a technical training program that employers are actually willing to pay for—one that focuses on soft skills. 

Since we began publishing our annual college rankings in 2005, we’ve been warning that America’s higher education system is an inequitable, unsustainable mess that rips off too many of the students it is meant to help. Now, with that system teetering on the brink, we may be at an opportune moment to fundamentally change it. And the current generation of students, the most screwed yet, may be the ones to push us to finally act.

Paul Glastris and Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is an editor at the Washington Monthly. Paul Glastris is the magazine’s editor in chief.