A graduate makes their way to the staging area during the 2021 Mount San Antonio College graduation. (Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

With rising high school seniors and their families awaiting the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings amid news that several brand-name universities fudged their data to the magazine, the Washington Monthly today is releasing its alternative rankings, which have avoided such scandals by focusing on data that is more reliable and relevant to the majority of students, as well as to policy makers. The new issue of the Monthly also features a story by James Fallows, the acclaimed journalist and former U.S. News editor fired by U.S. News’s owner after questioning that magazine’s rankings metrics. 

This summer, U.S. News “deranked” Columbia University and removed Villanova University from its Best Value list for “misreporting” their data. An internal University of Southern California review recently confirmed a similar U.S. News numbers-boosting scheme, and a Temple University administrator is now serving time in prison for such activity. 

The common source of these controversies is that U.S. News’s metrics rely on a proprietary survey on which colleges have an incentive to cheat. The Washington Monthly’s measures, by contrast, are based on publicly available data largely collected by the federal government—so to cheat on the Monthly’s rankings, colleges must intentionally lie to the federal government, which they are loath to do.

In addition to greater reliability, the Washington Monthly rankings offer measures of student outcomes that are more useful and relevant to students, the majority of whom are neither wealthy nor applying to highly selective schools, as well as to policy makers at the federal and state levels who must make funding decisions for colleges and universities based on the broader public interest. Whereas U.S. News & World Report rewards colleges for their wealth, prestige, and exclusivity, the Monthly ranks schools based on upward mobility, public service, and research. The Monthly’s focus on how colleges serve middle- and lower-income students is especially relevant in the wake of President Joe Biden’s executive order providing loan forgiveness for such students.

A Tale of Two Rankings

Many colleges that do poorly on U.S. News’s rankings do well on the Washington Monthly’s, and vice versa: 

  • The Monthly’s top 20 list includes six state schools—among them UC Davis and National Louis University in Chicago—while only one public university makes it onto the U.S. News’s top 20. 
  • Utah State University, #22 on the Monthly list, is #249 on the U.S. News list (a 227-point difference).
  • Tulane University is #407 in the Monthly ranking; U.S. News puts it at #42 (365-point difference).
  • Baylor University is #382 in the MonthlyU.S. News has it at #75 (307-point difference).
  • Hofstra University is #438 in the Monthly, and #162 in U.S. News (276-point difference).
  • Pepperdine University is #232 in the MonthlyU.S. News puts it at #49 (183-point difference).

The September/October Washington Monthly also ranks master’s universities, liberal arts and bachelor’s colleges, and America’s “Best Bang for the Buck” colleges—a one-of-a-kind list of schools that help nonwealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

Colin Diver, author of Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do About It, recently said, “My advice to applicants is … start with the Washington Monthly … They’re trying to rank based on what the college does for the community, which is very different from the obvious wealth and prestige focus of U.S. News and several others.”

The September/October Washington Monthly also includes “America’s Best and Worst Colleges for Vocational Certificates,” a long-overdue ranking of the programs where millions of Americans seek job skills, and a “Best Colleges for Student Voting” ranking that is especially relevant because young voters could be a deciding factor in the upcoming midterm elections. 

“America needs a new definition of higher education excellence, one that measures what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves,” says Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris. “U.S. News rewards colleges for their wealth, prestige, and exclusivity, thereby aggravating America’s racial and class divides, whereas the Monthly ranks schools based on very different criteria meant to do the opposite.”

Other highlights from the issue are: 

  • James Fallows writes about “When Gown Embraces Town,” focusing on why it’s time to judge colleges by their contribution to the economic and civic life of their communities, and why Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, passes the test brilliantly by running the city’s failing public schools. In “The (Student) Paper of Record,” Deborah Fallows explains how The Ball State Daily News has filled a local journalism gap.
  • Rob Wolfe examines “The Invisible College Barrier,” which are admissions requirements for popular majors that rob underprivileged students of future income—and their dreams.
  • Jamaal Abdul-Alim writes about how “dual enrollment” programs are the hottest reform in education. In “A Job and a College Degree Before You Graduate High School,” he explains that they haven’t worked for lower-income students of color—until now.
  • Laura Colarusso reports on “Breaking the Cycle of Privilege,” highlighting how administrators at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts noticed that their paid internships weren’t reaching minorities and women in the numbers they intended, and how they fixed it.
  • Jodie Adams Kirshner writes about “The Memphis Post-COVID Community College Blues,” and how in the best of times, poor students struggle against long odds to graduate—and these are not the best of times.
  • Anne Kim explains in her article “Train in Vain” why the government’s workforce training system includes the worst colleges and excludes the best.
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