Two years ago this month, President Barack Obama made a bold promise: Starting with the 2015-16 academic year, his administration would rate every college and university in America. Instead of comparing colleges with the wealth and prestige measures used by the likes of U.S. News & World Report, he said, “what we want to do is rate them on who’s offering the best value, so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”
The announcement was greeted warmly at the Washington Monthly. After all, we’ve been ranking colleges on such measures since 2005, and even added a “Best Bang for the Buck” ranking in 2012. But we also knew that the road to a federal ratings system would be strewn with obstacles. As Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus reported in these pages last year, the formidable higher education lobby quickly launched an effort to kill the Obama ratings plan in the cradle. By mobilizing local college presidents and forging a strange-bedfellows alliance with conservative lawmakers in Congress, higher ed lobbyists attacked the ratings from every available angle.
In the end, they succeeded. In late June of this year, the administration canceled its ratings plan until further notice. Additional, unspecified raw data about colleges might be released. But there would be no judgment as to what those numbers meant, no celebration of colleges that succeeded in educating a diverse student body at a reasonable price, and no condemnation of those that failed.
Fortunately, there is a place where you can get this kind of information, though without the powerful imprimatur of the federal government, and that’s right here in the Washington Monthly. In this issue, we present our annual college guide, devoted to in-depth stories on what’s going wrong with America’s higher education system—a target-rich environment these days, sad to say—and how to turn things around. Anchoring our coverage are our annual college rankings, in which we chuck the U.S. News-validated idea that the “best” schools are the ones that spend the most money, exclude the most students, and impress a small circle of elites. We think that those criteria have helped lead the higher education system down its current ruinous path.
Instead, we rank four-year colleges in America on three measures that would make the whole system better, if only schools would compete on them. The first is upward mobility: Are schools enrolling and graduating students of modest means and charging them a reasonable price? The second is research: Are they preparing undergraduates to earn PhDs, and creating the new technologies and ideas that will drive economic growth and advance human knowledge? The third is service: Are schools encouraging their students to give back to the country by joining the military or the Peace Corps, or at least letting them use their work-study money to do community service rather than making them on-campus office slaves?
It turns out that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces strikingly different results than U.S. News. The boxes below compare the two rankings for national universities and liberal arts colleges respectively. Here are a few highlights:
On the U.S. News list, nineteen of the top twenty universities are private, as are nearly all the top colleges. Public institutions that serve a wide range of students fare much better by our measures. Sixteen of our twenty highest-ranked universities are taxpayer supported, and only two privates, Stanford and Harvard, make the top ten on our list of national universities.
As it has in previous years, the University of California system dominates our national university rankings, with a combination of research prowess and economic diversity among undergraduates. Compared to barely public institutions like the University of Virginia (sixty-third on our list), where only a few more than one in ten students are poor enough to qualify for the federal Pell Grant, top-ranked UC San Diego and UC Riverside enjoy international reputations for scholarship while enrolling racially and economically diverse student bodies. Other standout publics on our list include Texas A&M, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
There are also many worthy liberal arts colleges in our rankings, with women’s colleges and historically black colleges like Bryn Mawr and Claflin University standing out.
The New College of Florida, a rare public liberal arts college, also makes our top twenty. Berea College in Kentucky, ranked third on our list, specializes in educating low-income, first-generation college students, at a price that’s virtually free. In a time when researchers are increasingly questioning how much undergraduates actually learn while they’re in college, liberal arts schools often provide the intensive, personalized learning environments where students thrive.
There are also hundreds of baccalaureate and master’s-granting institutions that don’t compete for students nationally and instead serve as the workhorse institutions of American higher education, providing affordable degrees with strong ties to regional economies. Creighton University in Nebraska, our third-ranked master’s university, graduates over three-quarters of its students and sends an unusual number on to earn PhDs. Truman State, a public university in Missouri, has similar graduation rates and affordable tuition, and excels at enrolling students in both the Peace Corps and the ROTC.
Both of our top two baccalaureate colleges, the public Elizabeth City State in North Carolina and the private Tuskegee University in Alabama, are historically black institutions, continuing the trend we see in our liberal arts college rankings. Cooper Union’s graduation rate and success in producing future PhDs keeps it highly ranked, despite the fact that administrative bungling led the historically tuition-free institution to start levying charges for the first time last year.
The outrage voiced by Cooper Union students and alumni over the huge tuition increase joined a chorus of price-focused criticism that has come to dominate the politics of higher education in recent years. It has never been more expensive to go to college in America, and many of the public colleges and universities that have historically been one of the few reliable pathways to prosperity for the poor and the middle class are rapidly boosting tuition toward private market rates. The success of the UC system on our rankings is more a testament to the durability of its original design than to the good work of its present-day stewards. Over the last two decades (and especially right after the 2008 financial crisis), the UC system has been rocked by budget reductions imposed by a legislature more interested in tax cuts and mass incarceration than building a world-class higher education system for the twenty-first century.
The few private universities near the top of our list, such as Harvard and Stanford, are there because they have accumulated incredible amounts of wealth, allowing them to offer generous financial aid to the lower-income students they admit. This is a commendable but irreplicable model. And as Mamie Voight and Colleen Campbell note in this issue, many public universities are shirking their obligations to enroll and graduate a reasonable share of low-income students. Because institutions such as Penn State University (all the way down at number eighty-four in our rankings) appear to have little desire to promote socioeconomic mobility, tens of thousands of students are being shut out of universities where they would have a better chance of earning a degree.
The swell of public anger over the high price of college and rising levels of student debt is now manifesting itself in national politics at the highest level. The Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have already released proposals for free public higher education and “debt-free college,” and overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton is expected to release her own, similar plan soon. Whoever wins the nomination will have a knowledgeable and crucially placed ally in the chancellor of Louisiana State University, F. King Alexander. As Alexander Holt’s in-depth profile describes, King Alexander has spent the last two decades fighting a lonely battle to roll back a momentous and largely unknown set of policy decisions made in the early 1970s, in which a cabal of New England politicians and college leaders struck a far-reaching bargain that guaranteed vast public revenues to private institutions with no public accountability. The LSU president believes that decision doomed American higher education to perpetually rising prices. Now it appears that his moment has arrived.
Political pressure on colleges is also building on other fronts. Caroline Frederickson argues that the long-term reduction in the proportion of college classes taught by tenure-track professors is part and parcel of the broad societal trend of more “contingent labor.” Somehow, none of the cost savings produced by this exploitation have been passed on to students in the form of lower prices. Now adjunct professors are agitating to unionize even as courts are beginning to challenge the legality of contingent labor arrangements in other industries.
The biggest obstacle to setting higher education on a better path is the belief, shared by many Americans and used to advantage by college lobbyists making common cause with congressional Republicans, that the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to regulate colleges in any meaningful way. In reality, the absence of effective regulation is what aids and abets crushing tuition hikes. The federal aid system that King Alexander wants to reform is a blank check for higher education—$150 billion per year in student grants and loans, in exchange for virtually no accountability for results. Alexander believes that state governments should be prohibited from wantonly cutting university budgets, and he’s right.
Of course, effective regulation can’t be taken for granted. As Samuel Bagenstos describes, inept federal oversight has allowed many universities to botch the implementation of the sexual assault prevention provisions of Title IX of the federal Higher Education Act, by withdrawing into shells of bureaucratic compliance that seriously threaten the ideals of free speech. The U.S. Department of Education will need to be overhauled with enough talent and regulatory muscle to preserve the independence and diversity of the higher education sector while ensuring that all institutions receiving public dollars fulfill their public commitments in exchange.
Identifying institutions and leaders that are already leading the nation in this regard is an annual mission for the Washington Monthly college guide. Matthew Connolly’s list of America’s most innovative college presidents shows that it’s possible to expand research and provide a great education to large numbers of economically and racially diverse students, even in a perilous financial environment. These women and men lead institutions ranging from community colleges to small historically black institutions to enormous research universities. But in each case, the presidents are intensely focused on the educational well-being of their students, communities, and nation.
Similarly, Mary Alice McCarthy describes how some states are experimenting with a promising “upside-down bachelor’s degree,” in which work-focused students can begin their college careers by spending two years acquiring valuable skills that lead to good jobs, and then completing the broader general education requirements necessary for a bachelor’s degree and that credential’s long-term benefits in work and life. The challenge is to create an environment of federal regulations and broader societal values that motivates state policymakers and college leaders to make examples like these the rule instead of the exception. For that to happen, Jamie Merisotis contends, the federal government needs to get its own house in order by reorganizing far-flung agencies into a new U.S. Department of Talent.
What’s needed most, though, is better information and metrics, including data on student outcomes, so that the incentives that push producers in other markets to provide better quality at lower prices can work in higher education, too. The Obama ratings plan was supposed to serve that purpose. But there is a potential silver lining in its failure. The still-unspecified data elements that the administration has promised to release later this year—the raw material that should have been used to construct new ratings—could include measures of how much money students earn after graduating from individual colleges. This information exists. The U.S. Department of Education has been sitting on it for months. We suspect that paltry results for graduates of a number of expensive private colleges were one of the reasons the ratings plan was scuttled.
But the future is undoubtedly one in which more information will emerge about what colleges are doing for their country, instead of themselves. When it does, we’ll be ready to identify both the best and the worst, on your behalf.