Introduction: a different kind of college ranking.

By the Editors

Last August, President Barack Obama traveled to the State University of New York at Buffalo to give a speech about higher education. It began with the usual tributes to college as a pillar of American opportunity and economic renewal. "A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future," the president said, repeating a message that most students have heard, ad nauseam, for their entire lives.

But then Obama's tone changed. He reflected on his own experience as a college debtor, how he and his wife had been making loan payments into their forties, when they should have been saving for retirement and their own children's education. How previous generations had made a compact with the future by financing affordable colleges, a commitment that budget-cutting states were in the process of tearing down. How students were being forced to choose between a life without a college diploma and college debt they can't afford to repay.

The solution, the president said, was something unprecedented in the history of national higher education policy: a new federal rating system.

"We're going to start rating colleges," said Obama, "not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities--you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. 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."

This was welcome news at the Washington Monthly, since we've been publishing just such a ranking since 2005. In 2012, we even added in a special "bang for the buck" measure.

Our rankings have always rejected the idea that expense, luxury, and exclusivity should be held up as the highest values for colleges and students to aspire to. Instead, we ask a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, doesn't just affect students. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they put students from lower-income families on the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in government-financed financial aid, tax breaks, and other spending.

To identify the most public-minded institutions, we rank every four-year college and university in America based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of crediting colleges that reject the most applicants, we recognize those that do the best job of enrolling and graduating low-income students.

Our rankings measure both pure research spending and success in preparing undergraduates to earn PhDs. And by giving equal weight to public service, we identify colleges that build a sense of obligation to their communities and the nation at large.

The complete list of our national university rankings begins on page 70, liberal arts colleges on 84, and master's universities and baccalaureate colleges on 96.

It turns out that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces some surprising results. Well-known...

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