Thirteen years ago, the Washington Monthly set out to solve a problem. The higher education market was dominated by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which reward wealth, fame, and exclusivity. College leaders responded to the temptation of better U.S. News scores by raising prices, chasing status, and marketing themselves to the children of privilege.
We thought the nation needed exactly the opposite: smart, well-run colleges that enrolled students from all walks of life and helped them earn a high-quality diploma at an affordable price. Colleges that instilled a sense of service and public obligation while producing groundbreaking research.
So we decided to do something about it and create our own ranking--not based on what colleges do for themselves, but on what they do for their country. After all, everyone benefits when colleges push the boundaries of scientific discovery and provide paths to opportunity for the next generation of low-income students. And everyone pays for college, through taxes and other forms of public support.
Today, the Washington Monthly rankings are often listed alongside (or above) U.S. News when colleges tout their national standing. We rate schools on three equally weighted criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of rewarding schools that reject 95 percent of applicants, we give high marks to colleges that enroll lots of low-income students and help them graduate and earn a good living without too much debt. We factor in pure research spending and the number of undergraduates who go on to earn PhDs. And we give extra weight to colleges that send their graduates out into the world to serve the community at large.
For most of our rankings history, policymakers followed our lead. Both the Bush and Obama administrations challenged the entrenched higher education lobby to disclose more information about student success. Innovative institutions began touting their ability to enroll bigger, more diverse classes and help them land good jobs after graduation.
Then Donald Trump was elected, and forward momentum at the federal level ground to a halt. In last year's College Guide, we speculated about how bad a higher education secretary Betsy DeVos might turn out to be. She has somehow been even worse. Data gathering has stopped while DeVos and a collection of former for-profit college executives have begun ripping up Obama-era regulations designed to protect students from predatory schools.
The human cost of these actions will be enormous. But the higher education sector has an opportunity to push back, by taking a strong public stand against the Trump agenda, and by offering students a better deal than the boiler rooms full of telemarketers who are doubtless filling up now that DeVos has de-dared open season on vulnerable students.
There are plenty of examples to choose from: colleges and universities you've likely never heard of that do a fantastic job of opening their doors to a wide array of students and giving them a great twenty-first-century education. Indeed, that's probably why you've never heard of them--because the lure of wealth, fame, and exclusivity is still a powerful force in defining higher education excellence.
We know colleges can do better. Here are some of the institutions leading the way.
The upper echelon of the U.S. News ranking of national universities--big, research-focused institutions that draw students from around the country--is a who's who of expensive private schools...