New graduates line up before the start of a community college commencement in East Rutherford, N.J., on May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

A year ago, the nation was tantalizingly close to making college tuition-free for millions of students. The Biden administration’s ambitious domestic policy agenda included a free community college plan that bore a more-than-passing resemblance to ideas first proposed right here in the Washington Monthly. America’s fragmented and increasingly unaffordable higher education system would finally offer a zero-price public option to all. 

Check out the complete 2022 Washington Monthly rankings here.

Sadly, it was not to be. Fifty Republicans and two Democrats in the U.S. Senate decided to stand athwart progress and reject the opportunity to improve child care, education, paid leave, and much more. The community college plan was among the first items to be jettisoned, in no small part because the wealthy private universities that dominate the D.C. higher education lobby conspicuously failed to endorse it, while also conducting a behind-the-scenes whisper campaign in Congress letting influential members know they’d be happy to see it fail. 

Not coincidentally, many of those legislative assassins routinely top the college rankings published annually by a last-century former newsmagazine that shall remain unnamed. When your status depends on rejecting as many applicants as possible while sitting on an enormous pile of money that accumulates earnings nearly tax-free, you tend to look down on efforts to redirect attention and public funding toward colleges that enroll and teach all kinds of people at a reasonable price. 

The resulting harm has been enormous, particularly as community college students struggle to reengage with their course work in the wake of devastating pandemic disruptions. As Jodie Kirshner writes in this issue (“The Memphis Post-COVID Community College Blues”), the combination of special interest pleading and ideological obstructionism that doomed the Biden plan came just as two-year colleges were bleeding enrollment, almost surely widening the income and educational attainment gaps that are increasingly pushing society apart. 

America needs a different definition of higher education excellence, one that empowers public institutions at the expense of elites, instead of the other way around. One that measures what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves. That’s the philosophy behind the Washington Monthly’s annual college rankings. Instead of rating colleges by wealth, fame, and exclusivity, we prize social mobility, public service, and research. 

The other rankings elevate colleges for keeping low-income students out. Ours reward them for letting those students in, and then helping them graduate with degrees that lead to good jobs, without unmanageable debt. Instead of reputational surveys that mostly measure the vague and long-ago, we focus on hard numbers: research expenditures, faculty awards, and producing graduates who go on to earn PhDs. Instead of giving colleges credit for how often their alumni give back to their alma mater, we measure how often students give to their communities by volunteering, starting public service careers, and enrolling in the Peace Corps and ROTC. 

The result is a very different hierarchy of the great, the good, and the not-very-good-at-all. Because we value public purpose, our rankings are much more likely to recognize public universities—there are six state schools in our top 20, but just one in theirs. Florida International University, for example, ranks number 162 on the other list, mostly because it doesn’t limit enrollment to rich valedictorians, and it was founded in the second half of the 20th century, not the first half of the 17th. We rank FIU at number 32 because, in addition to solid contributions in service and research, it is very affordable and helps a large number of students eligible for Pell Grants start their lives and careers with a high-quality degree. Columbia University is number 2 on the other rankings—or was, before it was de-ranked after being caught in the kind of massive data fraud scandal our rankings are much less vulnerable to because we rely on official government data, not self-reported metrics that invite abuse. We already ranked Columbia significantly lower
because we see little to no evidence of its commitment to public service. 

There are also multiple University of California and California State campuses in the upper echelons of our rankings, the mark of a system that, despite financial ups and downs in recent decades, was built on a foundation of research excellence and affordability in a state that has long been a magnet for immigration and innovation. Rutgers University’s Newark campus stands out for enrolling an economically diverse undergraduate class that goes on to earn unusually high salaries in the labor market, and—probably not coincidentally—has an unusually high rate of paying back student loans. 

There are also some familiar names at the bottom of our national rankings. Hofstra University enjoys a solid reputation on the Eastern Seaboard—why, we’re not exactly sure. More than a third of its students fail to graduate within six years, and the net price of attendance for families earning below $75,000 is absurdly high. Hofstra has little to show in terms of research expenditures, science PhDs, or faculty awards. Service commitments are scant. We rank it number 434 out of 442 nationwide, down among a bevy of for-profit colleges and struggling schools. 

Berea College in Kentucky is a consistent standout on our list of best liberal arts colleges, showing that excellence and access for first-generation students can go hand in hand. Lafayette College in Pennsylvania gets a boost over more traditional elite schools by staying particularly attentive to how much it charges lower-income students and how successful its graduates are at managing their debt after earning degrees. The College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota has unusual graduation rate success, given the number of Pell-eligible students it enrolls, and sends many graduates into the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as well as education and other public service careers. Unlike some elite colleges, it’s not a finishing school for future financial industry profiteers. 

We also rank nearly 900 master’s– and bachelor’s-granting institutions—many of them regional public universities that serve an enormous number of students and get little or no recognition from big-city newspapers that obsess over dinner parties in the Ivy League. Along with whatever the collective noun is for California State campuses (a grizzly of high performers are in our top 10), research-rich universities like Truman State in Missouri and SUNY Geneseo sit atop our master’s list. For-profit Academy of Art University in San Francisco, on the other hand, ranks number 601 (out of 603) because it charges low- to moderate-income students $32,000 per year and has been embroiled in so many scandals, fraud accusations, and government investigations that space limitations do not permit their full accounting here. 

Brigham Young University’s innovative Idaho campus cracks the top 10 on our bachelor’s campus ranking, scoring high on the number of undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs. Seventh-ranked Boricua College, which was founded by Puerto Ricans to provide a liberal arts education to Hispanic students in New York City, is an across-the-board standout on our measures of social mobility. It stands in contrast to DeVry University Fort Washington (number 250) or DeVry Columbus (253) or DeVry Iselin (255) in that respect.

There are scores of additional examples. Take some time to read James and Deborah Fallows’s reporting—“When Gown Embraces Town”, and “The (Student) Paper of Record,” respectively—about the new president of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, a public research university that is stepping forward to run the local K–12 school system in a first-of-its-kind initiative at the same time that its student newspaper increasingly provides the kind of local journalism that is vanishing from midsized cities and towns. Or Laura Colarusso’s story (“Breaking the Cycle of Privilege”) about how Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts is helping students move into the kind of solid well-earning jobs that once formed the backbone of our eroding middle class. Bunker Hill is succeeding despite that the fact that, as Anne Kim demonstrates (“Train in Vain“), the federal government’s system for certifying job training programs is an antiquated, broken-down disaster, leaving unsuspecting students and the taxpayers who support them vulnerable to programs that are obsolete, inadequate, fraudulent, or all of the above. 

The need in communities, particularly those with many Black and Latino students, is acute. Jamaal Abdul-Alim documents (“A Job and a College Degree Before You Graduate High School”) how the P-TECH program is helping high school students bank college credits toward associate’s degrees while earning competitive wages in local technology industries. College debt is an especially acute problem among Black borrowers. These programs help economically diverse students move into high-demand careers while making money instead of borrowing it. The obstacles in their way are many. Rob Wolfe exposes (“The Invisible College Barrier“) one of the hidden pitfalls preventing many first-generation students and students of color from entering high-paying jobs in business and tech: a second, secret set of admissions criteria that many universities impose after students have enrolled in school. 

Nowhere is the abuse of poor and working-class students more acute, and the potential to help them get ahead greater, than in vocational certificate programs—the kind provided by community colleges and for-profit trade schools. The Washington Monthly was the first to rank these programs, in 2018, and we do so again this year. Our hope is that highlighting the good ones and exposing the predatory ones will spur policy makers to better support the former and crack down on the latter, while helping students more safely navigate their futures.

All of these colleges, the best and the worst, are virtually absent from the complex of popular culture and elite media that mostly defines the way people understand higher education. That matters, because people won’t care about institutions they literally don’t know exist—or only perceive through the lens of socially acceptable class bigotry that continually structures our sense of deservedness in higher learning. So when the rare time comes to possibly advance the cause of social justice through new federal investment, the political weight needed to make it across the finish line simply isn’t there. 

The good news is that the essential logic of building a more egalitarian and student-focused higher education system remains strong. That’s why there was a free community college plan in the first place. The students and educators represented by the Washington Monthly college rankings are legion. It’s our privilege to open a window into their lives
every year.

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.