Michigan State University students celebrate at a commencement ceremony, Friday, May 5, 2023. (Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

Over the past year, a steady flow of institutions of higher education have withdrawn from U.S. News & World Report’s increasingly troubled college rankings. First, in November 2022, several prestigious law and medical schools departed, including Stanford, Yale, Penn, and Harvard. Then, this past winter and spring, four well-regarded colleges—Bard, Stillman, Colorado College, and Rhode Island School of Design—announced that they would no longer cooperate with the magazine’s rankings. And finally, in June, Columbia became the first top university to stop participating in the undergraduate rankings, expressing concern about their “outsize influence.” The latter wasn’t the brave stand that it might have seemed—Columbia had fallen 16 places in the prior year’s list after one of its professors revealed that administrators had been juking the stats—but no matter: After years of criticism over U.S. News’s unreliable, prestige-obsessed reign over American higher ed, an exodus has begun. 

What are these schools rebelling against? In their announcements, similar phrases pop up again and again: “outsize influence,” “the tyranny of rankings.” College administrators clearly resent the power that U.S. News has over how they run their institutions. But there was another current within the flood of “Dear John” letters, a sense that the rankings’ priorities are hindering, not helping, schools’ professed commitment to public service. Take Harvard, which objected that U.S. News’s methodology makes it harder to “enhance the socioeconomic diversity of our classes” and “allocate financial aid to students based on need.” Or take RISD, which complained that the metrics are “unambiguously biased in favor of wealth, privilege and opportunities that are inequitably distributed.” To be sure, Harvard and, to some degree, RISD also embrace policies that are “unambiguously biased” toward the rich and powerful. (Legacy admissions, anyone?) But their paeans to the cause of inclusion speak to a broader shift in public opinion, a disgust with the self-serving institutions of the elite that can no longer be ignored.

The clamor for these changes is so loud that even U.S. News is listening. In May, the publication announced that it would begin tracking colleges’ success in graduating students from diverse backgrounds and remove alumni donations and class sizes as factors in its rankings, among other measures. Small changes, but a recognition, at last, that something is fundamentally off.

Now more than ever, we need a better set of benchmarks for what “excellence” is in higher education, ones that measure what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves. The Washington Monthly’s college rankings try to do just that, by rating institutions on their commitment to three goals: social mobility, public service, and research. Rather than laud the universities that mostly cater to the sons and daughters of the wealthy, we reward those that welcome students from everyday and low-income backgrounds and help them to graduate on time, with good jobs and low debt. Rather than rely on vague surveys of institutions’ “reputation” for academic prowess, we measure hard data on research spending, faculty awards, and rates of PhD attainment among graduates. And instead of boosting universities for how generous their alumni are in giving to their endowments, we rank the generosity of alumni toward their community: How many join the Peace Corps and the military, or pursue careers as social workers or teachers?

This year, the top performers in the Monthly’s rankings once again highlight this difference in priorities. Some traditionally prestigious names appear on our list of 442 national universities—at first place, followed by Stanford and MIT, is Harvard, with its exceptionally high graduation rate, its cheap net cost for students from middle-to-low-income families (fourth best in the nation, at an annual $1,758), its prize-laden faculty, and a comparatively high rate of graduates sent into AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and ROTC programs. But we also recognize public universities that, without cracking that “elite” echelon, elevate students of humble backgrounds into community-minded graduates with strong economic prospects—like 19th-ranked Florida International University, a perennial leader in our list that goes underrecognized in the other one (where it was tied for 151st last year). FIU rose 13 places in our 2023 rankings, fueled by its continued commitment to enrolling Pell Grant students, shepherding them through at a low cost that’s comparable to what much richer universities can afford, and graduating them into jobs with respectable incomes. Another such school is California State University, Fresno, tied for 250th on the other list but ranked 26th on ours, ahead of Dartmouth and the University of Chicago. Located in the continental U.S.’s third-largest majority-Hispanic city (Miami, home of FIU, is fourth), Cal State Fresno costs about the same, net, as Princeton, which has $35.8 billion to splash on its undergraduates. At the same time, the NorCal state school graduates more Pell recipients than the New Jersey Ivy, both in absolute terms and compared to predicted numbers.

Brown University, as wealthy and selective as they come, rises only as far as number 43. Despite being fairly affordable for those who make it through its iconic wrought-iron gates, the Providence school makes very little effort to enroll students who actually need the help. Its graduates enter national and military service at abysmally low rates for an institution of its reputation (128th and 205th), and comparatively few pursue service-oriented majors. Meanwhile, Brown spends much less on research compared to its peers. 

Harvey Mudd tops our list of liberal arts schools this year, whereas under the prevailing orthodoxy it typically trails the leading pack. We rank the Claremont science and engineering college so highly because it leads in two key categories—the actual versus predicted earnings of its recent graduates, and the number who go on to earn PhDs. Right behind it is a perennial Monthly favorite, Berea College, which is the best in the nation at enrolling low-income students, and among the best at getting them to the podium on Commencement Day—at exceptionally low cost. Sought-after Carleton College ranks only 36th out of 199; it costs a pretty penny, is far worse at getting its students to complete their degrees than you might expect, and sends them on to surprisingly low-paying jobs in the decade after graduation. (Although they do pursue advanced degrees at a high rate, which could partially explain the lagging post-college income.)

Each year we rank roughly 850 bachelor’s and master’s institutions, as well. Many, like Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black college in North Carolina that ranks second among bachelor’s-granting schools, go unheralded by the prestige measurers even as they quietly graduate thousands of underprivileged students into well-paying jobs. Since 2021, ECSU has climbed 11 places thanks to its incredibly low cost to students and its efforts to enroll Pell recipients and keep them in school, which it does at a rate only 5 percent below the mean. SUNY Geneseo tops our master’s list, ahead of no fewer than seven Cal State campuses in the top 11. The Finger Lakes–area school excels in our research and service metrics, sending an extraordinary number of students on to doctoral degrees and the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, Cal State Northridge, the third-ranked master’s school, graduates more Pell recipients each year—3,779—than the entire Ivy League combined, and charges them about what Cornell and Dartmouth do, while splitting its $203.5 million endowment among 36,000 students and somehow also managing to rank eighth in research spending among its peers. Near the bottom is DeVry University in Ontario. This California campus of the for-profit chain charges an arm and a leg to low-income students—$28,207 a year—who go on to underperform their peers’ incomes by nearly 25 percent, a significant problem with all that tuition to pay off.

The other big news this year has been the growing conservative attack on higher education. Several GOP governors, most prominently Florida’s Ron DeSantis, have been cracking down on academic freedom in their state universities in the name of fighting “woke” values. Such tactics might bring short-term political gains, James Fallows argues in this issue, but are self-defeating in the long run (“What’s the Matter With Florida?”). They appeal to a shrinking number of noncollege-educated voters, while alienating a growing mass of voters with college degrees. They also sap the vitality of institutions that are major drivers of a state’s economic growth—Florida, for instance, is experiencing record-high numbers of faculty resignations and departures from its universities. DeSantis’s relentless campaign against higher education might well be weakening institutions like FIU that serve the working-class people he claims to champion.

Meanwhile, this summer, the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority struck down affirmative action, leaving in place legacy admission for wealthy whites while reversing precedent that had allowed schools to prioritize spots for minorities. But as several writers note in this issue, the dream of diversity isn’t dead. As Monthly editor Will Norris reports, the military has long run preparatory schools that help underprepared minorities boost their academic scores so they can gain admission to elite officer training academies like West Point without lowering standards—a strategy selective civilian colleges and universities should adopt (“How the Military Can Save Affirmative Action”). Meanwhile, Jamaal Abdul-Alim tracks the growth of “direct admission” programs, which reduce barriers for low-income and first-generation students, many of them people of color, by encouraging colleges to proactively notify qualified candidates of their acceptance—before they’ve even applied (“When Colleges Apply to Students”). Anne Kim casts a jaundiced eye on certificate programs offered by tech giants like Google that allegedly can land high-paying jobs for workers without a full degree (“Google’s Participation Trophies”). And finally, Raquel Rall, Demetri Morgan, and Richard Chait pull back the curtain on university boards, which claim to care about the diversity of their students but keep their own diversity numbers secret—until now (“Does Your Board of Trustees Reflect Your Student Body?”). 

The day after the affirmative action decision, the Court also blocked President Joe Biden’s effort to forgive $430 billion in student loans. “The fight is not over,” Biden said that day. He has since launched another debt forgiveness measure under different legal authority and a new income-based repayment plan that would greatly lower monthly payments and eventually forgive some principal for lower- and middle-income borrowers. Both plans face likely court battles. As the historian Jonathan Zimmerman chronicles in “Higher Ed’s Founding Promise,” the struggle to enshrine college as an affordable public good is as old as the republic. Another president, George Washington, willed a portion of his estate to create a national university for the benefit of all (his wishes were thwarted by political chicanery), and later, Justin Morrill, the architect of the 19th-century land grant universities, desired that they should be “accessible to all, but especially the sons of toil.” 

Here at the Monthly, we’re proud to contribute to that struggle with our annual college guide, which aims to hold institutions—and the governments that fund them—to their promises of affordability and public service. Let’s say the exodus from U.S. News continues. What happens if, instead of competing to rise in its rankings, colleges vie to do well in ours? With the reader’s indulgence, we might imagine this utopia. Here, colleges strive to let in more low- and middle-income students, instead of courting the privileged offspring of wealthy donors. Administrators encourage their undergraduates to spend at least part of their careers serving others as teachers or soldiers, instead of plunging directly into investment banking and private equity. They fall over one another to fund research into climate solutions. They make it as easy as possible for their students to vote. They fight to reverse the reigning system of inequality, rather than perpetuate it through the relentless pursuit of wealth and prestige.

A pretty picture. For now, the sons and daughters of toil can only dream of it.

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Rob Wolfe is an editor at the Washington Monthly.