Introduction: A Different Kind of College Ranking

Eleven years ago, the Washington Monthly decided that America needed a different kind of college ranking.

Back then, U.S. News & World Report was the only game in town. Every year, the newsmagazine would rate the nation’s institutions of higher learning on measures of wealth, fame, and exclusivity, then publish the results as a list of “best” colleges.

In response, colleges tried to claw their way up the U.S. News ladder by raising prices and excluding all but the most privileged students—exactly the opposite of what a nation struggling to keep higher education affordable for an increasingly diverse student population actually needed.

So we gathered the best available data and ranked colleges not on what they did for themselves, but on what they did for their country. Our method had three pillars: social mobility, research, and service. Colleges that enrolled many low-income students and helped them graduate did well on our rankings, regardless of how famous they were. So did universities producing the next generation of scientists and PhDs, and those that built an ethos of public obligation by sending graduates into service.

But from the beginning, we acknowledged that the U.S. News rankings weren’t flawed simply because heaping compliments on Harvard and Princeton is a great way to sell guidebooks for $9.95 at airport newsstands. (Although that was most of the reason.) U.S. News also relied on “input” measures like freshman SAT scores and class-size ratios because there was no way to measure outcomes of higher education, like how much students learned in school and whether they got good jobs after graduation. Those numbers didn’t exist—or if they did, colleges wouldn’t release them.

We have devoted a sizable portion of the in-depth journalism that accompanies each new Washington Monthly College Guide to exploring and advocating for exactly this kind of data. And we’re pleased to report that it worked: last year, the Obama administration released a trove of new outcomes information for every college and university in America. For the first time, we know how much students earn ten years after enrolling at a given college and how likely they are to be paying down the principal on their loans. The new data also included new perspectives on college opportunity, including the percentage of first-generation students at each college.

We incorporated all of this new information, and more, into this year’s rankings, marking the single-biggest change in our methodology to date. You can find the 2016 ranking of national universities here and a detailed description of the methodology here.

Some of the results were surprising. Colleges we once ranked as mediocre rose to the upper reaches. Others that we had long seen as stellar dropped down, sometimes drastically.

But on the whole, the new rankings bring the central problem facing American higher education into even sharper focus. It is far too easy for colleges to garner undeserved reputations for excellence by hiking tuition, burdening students with loans, and spending the money on things that have little to do with educational excellence. Meanwhile, colleges that are authentically committed to service and social mobility get far too little recognition or reward.

Here are some highlights of what we found:

Public Trust

The U.S. News national university rankings are dominated by private institutions that are free to pick and choose from among high school valedictorians and wealthy legacies. In fact, last year, only one public university, the University of California, Berkeley, cracked U.S. News’s top twenty. On our rankings, public universities, which combine economic diversity with service and a commitment to knowledge production and research, have always done much better. That remains the case, with the majority of our top twenty national universities coming from the public sector, including the University of California, San Diego, Texas A&M, and Utah State University, schools that rate nowhere near the top at U.S. News.

Adding new data elements to our rankings did, however, elevate a group of elite private universities, including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, which now comprise our top three. This shows that with enough money, it’s possible to be famous and exclusive and contribute to social mobility and research. (Those three universities possess $73 billion in combined endowment assets, representing more than 10 percent of the total for every university in America.) But this model provides few lessons for improving collegiate opportunity writ large. It is, by definition, limited to a tiny fraction of students, the victors in an increasingly winner-takes-all society. Indeed, even many elite schools with considerable means still fail to measure up on our rankings. Columbia, Northwestern, and Washington University in St. Louis, which rank number four, twelve, and fifteen, respectively, on the U.S. News list, come in at number twenty-four, forty, and ninety-nine in our rankings.

A more instructive example is California State, Fresno, ranked twenty-fifth on our list. Half of all undergrads there are first-generation students, and the majority have income low enough to qualify for a federal Pell Grant. Cal State–Fresno has a higher graduation rate than is typical, given those demographics, and a highly affordable net price for lower- and moderate-income students (calculated as tuition and fees minus grants and scholarships) of only $5,367 per year. Its students earn $3,600 more per year ten years after starting school than our statistical models predict, and also outperform peer institutions when it comes to students paying down the principal on their loans. And Cal State–Fresno spends 59 percent of its federal work-study funds on public service—the single-highest percentage of any national university in the country.

Texas Woman’s University, located outside Dallas–Fort Worth, doesn’t produce much research, because it isn’t a research institution. And its service numbers could be better. But it excels at the task that students and parents care most about: helping graduates get a foothold in the middle class. Based on demographics and student majors, students from TWU (originally founded by the state legislature as the Girls Industrial College) should earn less than $34,000 per year at the ten-year mark. They actually earn $45,000 per year. TWU is highly focused on training students in fields like kinesiology, business administration, child development, and, most prominently, nursing. Colleges like TWU are the backbone of America’s modern system of career development, helping an economically and racially diverse student population get good jobs for an affordable price.

Mercer University in Georgia, ranked thirty-seventh on our list, is a long-established private institution with a solid graduation rate and academic profile of incoming freshmen. But given those numbers, Mercer enrolls many more low-income and first-generation students than is typical, earnings are robust, and students are paying their loans back at an unusually high rate. Mercer also sends substantial numbers of graduates into ROTC and the Peace Corps, and reports a high level of community and staff participation in public service.

Universities like Cal State–Fresno, Texas Woman’s, and Mercer never show up on conventional “best college” rankings. They aren’t the most exclusive, and they don’t have football teams playing on New Year’s Day. Yet in relative anonymity, they are achieving the goal politicians and pundits say is vital: affordable, high-quality college education.

Then there are the colleges doing exactly the opposite.

Hofstra University president Stuart Rabinowitz earns more than $1 million per year. The university has a comfortable role in the greater New York City metropolitan area, enrolling students with an average SAT score near 1,200. Its published tuition of $40,460 is lower than some other private schools. U.S. News puts Hofstra in the middle of the pack, at 135th, a solid safety school for aspirants to NYU.

But our rankings suggest that’s pretty much all there is to Hofstra. It is home to few faculty who have been inducted into the National Academies or been similarly recognized at the top of their field. It conducts very little scientific research, and its graduates are relatively unlikely to go on to earn PhDs. Its graduation rate is below par, and it enrolls relatively few low-income and first-generation students—perhaps because it charges students from households earning less than $75,000 per year a whopping net price of $28,865, one of the very highest rates nationwide. Employment results are par for the course, loan repayment rates somewhat worse. Hofstra is doing okay for itself. It is doing little for anyone else. We rank it 297th out of 303 national universities.

The University of Miami’s football program has gone through several cycles of scandal and glory over the decades. What’s constant is the university’s high tuition prices and an anemic commitment to economic opportunity. Fewer than one in five Miami students are from low-income families, with similar proportions among first-generation students, and those who do attend are charged nearly $25,000 in tuition per year. Yet after college, Miami students make almost $9,000 less per year than their demographics and student majors predict, among the ten worst disparities nationwide.

Catholic University’s spiritual commitment to aiding the poor seems to stop at the admissions office door. Only 13 percent of its students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 16 percent are first-generation college-goers, one of the worst numbers nationwide.

Some national universities have fallen in our rankings from previous years, yet still stand out for their successes. The University of Texas at El Paso remains in our top third, because, as in years past, it enrolls many low-income students and charges affordable prices while making considerable investments in service and research. UTEP’s Achilles’ heel is the new loan repayment rate measure, which shows that nearly a quarter of students who borrow money to go there fail to pay down even $1 in principal on their loans five years after leaving school. UTEP administrators may need to invest in counseling and outreach to bring their ranking back up. Changes to the federal Pell Grant program that give nontraditional students aid to pay for summer semesters could help increase graduation rates at UTEP (and elsewhere), reducing debt and improving repayment rates.

And then there’s our bottom-ranked national university, Texas Southern, which last made national news nearly a decade ago when its former president pleaded no contest to criminal charges of misappropriating university funds. As journalists noted at the time, Texas Southern was arguably “created to fail” as a means of preventing desegregation. Unfortunately for its students, it continues to live this legacy, with a 15 percent graduation rate—far worse than other universities with similar student populations—relatively high prices, and a staggering 56 percent of borrowers failing to pay down the principal on their loans. As Washington Monthly has shown in previous in-depth investigations, too many “dropout factory” colleges are built to fail, but don’t stop enrolling tens of thousands of vulnerable students, year after year.

Liberal Values

Our new ranking of liberal arts colleges follows a pattern similar to national universities. Berea College tops this year’s list, due to its steadfast commitment to providing a free liberal arts education to first-generation and low-income students in Appalachia. This year’s candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have promised huge new federal subsidies to students attending public colleges and universities. Yet those plans leave out colleges like Berea, which arguably do far more to advance the public interest than selective public universities that skew toward the children of wealth and privilege.

Washington and Lee University in Virginia vaulted all the way to seventh on our liberal arts college ranking, on the strength of its affordable tuition and its outstanding earning results—students earned $18,000 more per year than our statistical models predicted. Ripon College in Wisconsin outperforms its peers in enrolling first-generation and Pell students, helping them graduate, and sending them successfully into the labor market. Tougaloo College, a historically black institution in Mississippi, continues to outperform in graduating an overwhelmingly low-income student population while keeping prices affordable—although it, too, has a serious problem with students being unable to pay down their loans.

Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s institution in Georgia, jumped twenty-one places in the rankings this year in part due to superior earnings results, joining Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and other women’s colleges that have historically ranked highly on our measures of service and social obligation. Davidson College, a highly selective institution in North Carolina with a strong humanities tradition, rose to number twelve by virtue of strong earning and loan repayment rates, accompanied by generous financial aid policies for lower- and middle-income students.

On the down side, Bennington College, ranked 227 out of 239, is probably still a good place to matriculate if you want to write, or live in, a book like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But for everyone else, it offers stingy financial aid for needy students, below-par earnings and graduation rates, and comparatively little in the way of research and service.

Regional Pride

National universities and liberal arts colleges dominate mass media coverage of higher education, but they don’t include the hundreds of regional and master’s-granting universities that collectively enroll millions of students every year. Among the best of them, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, shows that a traditional Great Books–focused liberal arts curriculum doesn’t necessarily lead to living in your parents’ basement at age twenty-five; earnings there rate comparably to similar schools, and a higher percentage of St. John’s graduates go on to earn PhDs than any master’s university nationwide. (Although this may lead to living in your parents’ basement when you’re thirty-five.) The Johnnies also enter the Peace Corps in high numbers.

California State campuses are located throughout the upper ranks of our master’s university rankings. They vary in how successfully they help students graduate and pay back loans, but their common thread is a high population of Pell-eligible students and unusually low net prices for students who aren’t well-to-do—the legacy of California’s historical commitment to accessible higher education, one that remains threatened by economic and budgetary pressures in the Golden State.

The College of the Ozarks, a Christian liberal arts school in Missouri that offers free tuition to full-time students in exchange for work and service commitments (its trademarked nickname is “Hard Work U”), rose to number two on our ranking of baccalaureate colleges. The majority of undergrads there qualify for Pell Grants, nearly two-thirds graduate within six years, and their loan repayment rates are stellar because nobody has loans to begin with. Number five–ranked Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church institution in Grand Rapids, Michigan, combines high loan repayment rates with an academically minded research focus, and it’s one of the few colleges to simultaneously excel in sending graduates into PhD programs, ROTC, and the Peace Corps.

Future Rankings

College rankings are only as good as the data that form them. To rank a college based on what happens to its students after leaving school is to assert that colleges bear responsibility for events that are partly outside their control. Public institutions can be hostage to the whims of elected officials. When we celebrate or criticize an institution, we are really describing a confluence of individual actions, organizational decisions, and societal trends.

But the great benefit of ranking the vast and diverse population of American colleges is that the imperfections and limitations of the data have a tendency to balance themselves out, revealing a critical truth: for any category of institution, serving any kind of student, there are colleges out there that truly stand out on every measure, or at least most of them, compared to other, similar schools. When it comes to serving their country, they simply do better, year in and year out, at one of the most vital and sacred responsibilities any public-minded institution can bear.

Which is why we will continue to hunt and advocate for more information about the many ways colleges do or don’t succeed. And it’s why we will use that information, fairly and publicly, for the benefit of all.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.