Introduction: a different kind of college ranking.


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?

The complete list of our rankings begins on page 80, and a detailed methodology can be found on our website ( Our 2015 Best Bang for the Buck rankings begin on page 28.

It turns out that ranking colleges by social mobility, research, and service produces strikingly different results than U.S. News. The boxes on pages 24 and 25 compare the two rankings for national universities and liberal...

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