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 starting on page 80 and a detailed description of the methodology on 114.
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:
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 Brigham Young University, schools that rate nowhere near the top at U.S. News.