Actor Tom Hanks delivers a commencement address during Harvard University commencement exercises on the school's campus, Thursday, May 25, 2023, in Cambridge, Mass. Hanks summed up something essential about America: Its true greatness is not defined by its elite. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Anyone who is a fan of Tom Hanks—which is to say, pretty much everyone—can probably recall some of his most famous lines: “There’s no crying in baseball.” “My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates.’ ” “Wilson!”

My new favorite is not from one of his movies. It’s from the opening of his commencement address at Harvard University earlier this year:

On behalf of all of us who studied for two years at Chabot Community College in Hayward, California, two semesters at California State University, Sacramento, and for 45 years at the School of Hard Knocks, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in one damn thing after another, thank you.

With that line, Hanks summed up something essential about America: Its true greatness is not defined by its elite. The newly minted Harvard graduates sitting in that audience, most of them from wealthy families, are destined for successful careers, some of them spectacular ones. Few, if any, are likely to achieve as much as the veteran actor with humble roots. 

One of four children of divorced, financially strapped parents—his father was an itinerant cook, his mother a hospital worker—Hanks learned enough from his modest post-secondary theater studies to earn parts in regional Shakespeare productions before moving on to television and then cinema—first as a comic actor, then in more serious roles. Over his career, his pictures have grossed nearly $10 billion—an astonishing feat for someone who has never played a superhero. Instead, in carefully chosen films like Saving Private Ryan, Sully, Captain Phillips, and Apollo 13, Hanks has portrayed a specific type of American hero: the quietly competent man next door who, under extreme pressure, acts with kindness, good humor, and professionalism. Those characteristics have also defined Hanks’s offscreen presence, helping to make him the most admired actor of his generation—on both sides of the political aisle.

American colleges and universities once enjoyed wide admiration, too. In recent years, however, public approval of colleges and universities has plummeted for two main reasons. First, tuition and fees have skyrocketed, and government has done too little to rein them in or help students cope. When Hanks went to college in the 1970s, the federal Pell Grant for low-to-moderate-income students covered 80 percent of the cost of a public four-year degree. Now it covers only 30 percent. 

Tuition increases have not been a problem for students from the most affluent families, nor for the elite private and public universities they disproportionately attend. Indeed, those prestigious schools are thriving financially precisely because of the burgeoning ranks of upper-middle-class and wealthy parents—encouraged by the helpful editors at U.S. News & World Report—who believe they must go to absurd lengths to get their kids into them. Meanwhile, the nonselective two- and four-year institutions that educate the other 90 percent of America struggle to get by on per-student funding levels that are half or a quarter of what the elite schools enjoy.

The second reason for declining public approval of college is politics. Over the past decade, college-educated Americans, who used to split their votes between the two major parties, have swung decisively toward the Democrats, while voters without college degrees have shifted dramatically in the other direction. This bifurcation of the electorate along educational lines has incentivized conservative politicians and media to attack colleges as bastions of dangerous leftism, as James Fallows reports in this issue (“What’s the Matter With Florida?”), and they have done so with abandon. Not surprisingly, confidence in higher education has dropped far more among Republican than Democratic voters. 

It is hard to exaggerate the threat that this brutal combination of partisan wrath and elite cluelessness poses to higher education. At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate the difficulty of turning things around. For all its faults, postsecondary education in the U.S. remains the envy of the world and retains a measure of domestic goodwill—few parents in America don’t want their children to go to college. The system can reverse its slide in public opinion by behaving in ways that better reflect the interests and values of the American majority. 

The Washington Monthly’s college rankings are our attempt to help show the way. Instead of rewarding schools for their prestige, wealth, and exclusivity, as U.S. News does, we give points to those that help non-wealthy students earn remunerative degrees, encourage students to vote and serve their country, and produce the scholars and scholarship that drive economic growth and human betterment. 

The good news is that plenty of colleges measure up. Some are elite, like Harvard. Most are ordinary institutions that serve everyday students and are largely unknown outside their communities—like California State University, Sacramento, the four-year school Hanks attended, which comes in fifth on our ranking of best master’s universities. To us, the most outstanding colleges are like the characters Tom Hanks plays: unassuming and quietly competent at a difficult, important job. 

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.