A Different Kind of College Ranking

Our higher education system is unmoored from any honest appraisal of how well colleges help students learn.

The carnival of corruption and deceit that is the Operation Varsity Blues college admissions scandal has created many windows onto the sorry state of American higher education, and of American society at large. How the rich and powerful, unsatisfied with the enormous and growing advantages of our winner-take-all society, bribed and cheated to take even more. How athletic coaches simply diverted graft money normally claimed by college “development” officials into their own pockets. How the market price of an elite admissions slot can reach upward of $6 million, based on what one wealthy Chinese family was willing to pay. 

Check out the complete 2019 Washington Monthly rankings here.

But the core truth exposed by the FBI is even more disturbing. The sheer venality of the scandal is the inevitable consequence of a higher education system unmoored from any honest appraisal of how well colleges help students learn.

Finding and publicizing such information is one of the Washington Monthly College Guide’s prime directives. Over the last fifteen years, we’ve steadily added new data to our rankings of what colleges do for their country by promoting social mobility, research, and public service. That perspective, unlike the wealth- and status-obsessed rankings published by U.S. News & World Report, creates a very different definition of excellence. 

It’s not surprising, for example, that no B-list celebrities were arrested for bribing their children into Utah State University, our fourteenth-ranked national university: it already admits 89 percent of students who apply. We rank Utah State so high because it’s very good at helping low-income students graduate and get good jobs. It was not designed to exclude people, which is why it doesn’t even crack the top 200 at U.S. News. 

Nor did any venture capitalist financiers pay off a test proctor to wangle their progeny into Cedar Crest College of Pennsylvania, our fifth-ranked master’s-granting university, which does a great job of promoting civic engagement and sending its graduates into the Peace Corps and PhD programs. Few of its students appear to be partying on yachts during spring break or getting paid to promote branded products on Instagram. And we can be sure that nobody Photoshopped the head of their weakling spawn onto the body of a champion water polo player in order to fake their way into Berea College, which ranks fourth on our list of liberal arts colleges. Berea, which has a historical mission of serving first-generation students from Appalachia, doesn’t have a water polo team—or crew, or sailing, or fencing, or any of the other rich-people sports that upper-crust families have long used as the so-called “side door” into coveted schools. 

Instead, those families set their sights on the University of Southern California, which saw the greatest number of employees implicated by the cheating scandal and—perhaps not coincidentally!—has produced a remarkably diverse collection of lurid improprieties in recent years. There’s the former dean of the USC medical school, a then-practicing eye surgeon, who spent many of his hours holed up in hotel rooms smoking meth with a prostitute. And the dean of the social work school, who pioneered the creation of a debt-financed $110,000 online social work degree by splitting the profits with a for-profit tech company; raked in millions; and somehow managed to bankrupt the department anyway before being implicated in a shady financial transaction involving the son of a prominent local politician. And the $50 million settlement with a rival school for lies and misconduct in poaching a star Alzheimer’s researcher. And the campus gynecologist who stands accused of sexually abusing hundreds of students—crimes the university allegedly tried to cover up. 

These are the kinds of things that happen at an institution disconnected from authentic purpose, a place where the pursuit of money and celebrity becomes both means and ends. Because it’s hard to know how good the education is at a given university, college, or program, institutions with branding savvy and proximity to wealth, fame, and power can ride a self-reinforcing spiral of price and reputation all the way up near the top of the U.S. News list, where USC currently sits at number twenty-two, blocked from further ascension only by universities that figured out how to play the game first. It’s no wonder that people selling glitzy fantasies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley were attracted to USC. They saw themselves. 

We, however, see a university that, despite a $5.5 billion endowment, has a substandard commitment to public service. That’s the difference between selling a world-class university and being one.

All of the schools caught up in the cheating scandal participate, to varying degrees, in the corruption of the academic ideal. Just as you can’t cheat an honest man, you can’t bribe your way past the doorman of a side entrance that doesn’t exist. Elite universities in this day and age are trying to have everything: money and influence and power but also respect and deference and public support. Some very good books have been written about these kinds of temptations. They can be found on the shelves of university libraries and the syllabi of the better humanities courses, should administrators and board members care to look. 

Reorienting higher learning around an ethical and student-centered set of values won’t come quick or easy. It will start with some outside accountability for where students, especially undergraduates, truly rank on the list of institutional priorities. We’ll continue to play that role by shining a light on the many colleges and universities too busy helping diverse students improve their lives and careers to be caught up in the decadence of the self-proclaimed leaders in the field. 

These are highlights from this year’s Washington Monthly college rankings.

National Universities

Our list of top national universities is a mix of familiar elite schools and public universities that should receive more credit than they often do. There are a handful of top-flight private research universities, such as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, with so much money that they’re able to provide generous financial aid to low-income students, help them graduate, and support leading research all at the same time. They deserve credit, but they’re also using a model that can’t be replicated or expanded at any scale. Together, Harvard and Yale own more than 10 percent of all the university endowment assets in America while enrolling about .15 percent of all college freshmen. 

Real improvement will mean following the example of institutions like Cal State–Fresno, our twenty-fourth-ranked national university, which enrolls an unusually large number of low-income and first-generation students and helps them graduate into good-paying jobs. For families that make less than $75,000, the school’s average net price is under $5,000. Or Rutgers University’s Newark campus, which has a very high graduation rate given its economically and academically diverse student body and produces graduates who are more likely than most to get good jobs and pay back their loans. 

Arizona State University has grown into a research powerhouse while keeping its admissions criteria open to a wide array of students. It also has succeeded in fostering very high student voting rates (see Daniel Block, “The Voting Wars Come to Campus“), pushing it near the top of our service rankings. 

There are also some familiar universities at the very bottom of our rankings. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. is well known as an ardent supporter of President Trump and a generous patron of Miami-area hotel pool attendants. But Liberty’s graduation rate is eight percentage points lower than it ought to be, given the makeup of its student body, and outcomes for Pell Grant students are especially terrible. Yet Liberty charges students from households earning less than $75,000 per year a net price of over $24,000, one of the highest prices in the nation. That forces Liberty students to take on a lot of debt. Five years after leaving Liberty, only 50 percent of those students have paid back even $1 on the principal of their loans. Liberty conducts little or no research, awards no doctorates in science and engineering, and, despite its alleged mission of “sensitivity to the needs of others” and “social responsibility,” makes almost no discernible contributions to public service. We rank Liberty 387 out of 395.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Washington and Lee, our top-ranked liberal arts college, offers an unbeatable combination of inexpensive tuition and great job outcomes for graduates. Berea College is perennially a top five school on our rankings because it was designed for social mobility. Amherst College is a more traditional elite liberal arts school, but it enrolls a significantly larger percentage of Pell Grant students than its highly selective peers. 

Bryn Mawr spends more on funded research than any other liberal arts college and is among the very best in graduating women who go on to earn PhDs. Agnes Scott College in Georgia, another all-women’s school, is tops in sending alumni into the Peace Corps. College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, stands out in helping graduates get good-paying jobs and pay their loans back. For a variety of reasons, women’s colleges and Jesuit schools tend to score highly on our criteria. 

Regional Campuses

Selective research universities and liberal arts colleges have historically received most of the rankings attention because they compete for students in a national market. But they enroll only a small fraction of undergraduates. Most college students instead attend a midsized regional public university or community college near home. Students, policymakers, and university trustees therefore need to know who their local leaders and laggards really are. That’s why we separately rank smaller institutions that primarily educate students seeking bachelor’s or master’s degrees and tend to draw from a regional applicant pool. 

SUNY Geneseo, our second-ranked master’s-granting institution, benefits from New York State’s continued investment in higher learning. While nearly all states enacted large cuts to university budgets after the Great Recession, a few, including New York and California, have restored almost all of the lost money, or even increased investment. Geneseo is second out of more than 500 master’s institutions on our service rankings. CUNY Baruch College also ranks high, with an eight-year graduation rate of 70 percent and, unusually, a higher success rate for Pell Grant students than others. Half of Baruch’s enrollment is composed of first-generation students, continuing CUNY’s historic role as a vector of upward mobility for immigrants to New York City, and the net price remains very low for middle- and lower-income families, at a little more than $4,000 per year. 

Trinity University, a private college with Presbyterian roots in San Antonio, can’t quite match public university prices, and graduates don’t earn a ton of money in the first few years out of school. But Trinity’s loan repayment rate of 92 percent is extraordinarily high, perhaps because of a strong career and academic focus, besting all other master’s institutions in sending graduates to doctoral programs. Goshen College, in Indiana, our second-ranked bachelor’s-granting institution, also has a Christian tradition. Forty percent of Goshen undergrads are first-generation students, making its 69 percent graduation rate impressively high. Like Trinity, Goshen also sends a strong cohort of graduates into doctoral programs and manages their financial aid so they can repay their loans. 

People generally don’t think of institutions like Goshen and Trinity as of a kind; they’re 1,300 miles apart and don’t play football against each other on weekends. But the schools are, in many ways, the face of what successful twenty-first-century higher education needs to look like: academically rigorous, demographically diverse, rooted in scholarly and ethical value systems that promote learning and engagement with the world. 

The challenge is to make that definition of excellence the standard in academia and public life. What we saw in bold letters this year, and have known for much longer, is that universities that chase the lure of fame and money instead will eventually come to bad ends. We’re glad to promote a different perspective: not what colleges do for themselves, but what they do for their country.

Note: A previous version of this article included inaccurate information about the number of Pell-grant eligible students who graduate from USC each year. The inaccurate information was submitted by USC itself to the U.S. Department of Education. 

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America and is guest editor of the Washington Monthly College Guide issue.