Introduction: a different kind of college ranking.

By the Editors

Eight years ago, the Washington Monthly published its first annual college rankings. Back in 2005, America was still operating under a compact with its citizens, colleges, and universities that had stood for the better part of the previous hundred years. The taxpayers would invest in basic research while keeping tuition at public institutions low enough that middle- and lower-class students could afford a degree. In return, colleges would produce the human and intellectual capital needed to sustain economic growth and civic life.

The strength of the bargain waxed and waned over the years. It depended less on federal law than on a set of common understandings among policy makers in state capitals and Washington, D.C. Starting in the 1980s, state lawmakers developed a bad habit of using their public universities as a kind of fiscal balance wheel, slashing budgets during recessions and letting tuition hikes make up the difference. But in the long run, states managed to keep up with inflation and a huge surge in enrollment driven by the Baby Boomers' children reaching college age. State spending per college student in 2005 still lagged from the 2001 recession, but in the growth years that followed states did what they had always done before: they invested in higher learning. By 2008, spending per student was higher than it had been twenty years before.

We designed the Washington Monthly college rankings to embody the American higher education compact at the institutional level. Instead of lauding colleges for closing their doors to all but an elite few, we give high marks to institutions that enroll low-income students, help them graduate, and don't charge them an arm and a leg to attend. Universities that bring in research dollars are rewarded by our standards, as are those whose undergraduates go on to earn PhDs. And we recognize institutions that are committed to public service, both in the way they teach and in encouraging students to enter service-focused careers.

We do this because everyone has a stake in the conduct of our colleges and universities. We're all affected by the productivity of our knowledge workers and the integrity of our college-educated leaders. And we all pay for higher education through hundreds of billions of dollars in annual public subsidies. This is the essence of the college bargain that has long been a pillar of national prosperity.

But something changed after the Great Recession of 2008. As with many other parts of American life, this time was different. States made unprecedented cuts to higher education budgets. By 2012, inflation-adjusted state appropriations per student were 21 percent lower than they had been in 1990. Tuition in some of the nation's biggest public university systems jumped 50 percent or more in the span of four years.

In part, this reflected the depth and magnitude of the financial calamity. But lurking in the statements and actions of state lawmakers there was a sense that a turning point had been reached. The idea of public universities as public institutions, accountable to the citizens and accessible to all, was pushed aside and replaced by a notion of universities as private state-chartered institutions that charge whatever the market will bear. As Stephen Burd describes in "Merit Aid Madness" (page 50), some states had been on this path for decades, letting tuition rates rise while failing to provide low-income students with adequate financial aid. As Paul Stephens recounts in "International Students: Separate but Profitable" (page 55), other states have jumped on the bandwagon of replacing hundreds or thousands of home-state students with the children of wealthy Chinese government officials and businessmen who are willing to pay premium rates for an American college education.

The tragedy of this widespread public disinvestment is that the case for public...

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