College rankings with a difference

Ask not what college can do for you; ask what your college is doing for America. That’s the Kennedy-esque premise on which Washington Monthly [WM] bases its 2010 rankings of American colleges, universities, community colleges and graduate schools. WM’s rankings—published in the magazine’s September/October 2010 issue—are strikingly different from those in the more-famous “Best Colleges” list published annually by US News & World Report. Washington Monthly explains:

This is our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige for its rankings. Instead, we rate schools based on what they are doing for the country — on whether they’re improving social mobility, producing research, and promoting public service.

Morehouse College commencement

Based on WM’s standards, top-ranked schools in U.S News—for example, the highly sought after Yale and Princeton–don’t even crack the top 20. They’re superseded by schools like the University of California San Diego and South Carolina State University, “a school relegated to a bottom tier in U.S. News.”

Using Washington Monthly’s criteria, the top liberal arts college in the country is Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male school in Atlanta.

How does Washington Monthly come to these iconcoclastic conclusions? It’s all about the methodology. WM rates schools…

based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

“Colleges should be judged not just on who they enroll and how many graduate but on what students do with their lives after they leave,” says Washington Monthly.

This approach offers a striking contrast to that of U.S. News, which describes its own ranking procedure this way:

…We gather data from and about each school in 16 areas related to academic excellence. Each indicator is assigned a weight (expressed as a percentage) based on our judgments about which measures of quality matter most. Third, the colleges are ranked based on their composite weighted score. We publish the numeric rank of roughly the top three-fourths of schools in each of the 10 categories; the remaining lowest ranked schools in each category are placed into the Second Tier…

Indicators used to measure academic quality fall into seven broad areas: peer assessment; retention and graduation of students; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; alumni giving; and (for national universities and national liberal arts colleges) “graduation rate performance,” the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion who do and high school counselor ratings….For national universities and national liberal arts colleges, the U.S. News ranking formula gives the most weight (22.5 percent) to peer assessment scores a combination of the academic peer score at 15.0 percent and the high schools counselor rating score at 7.5 percent.

To be fair, U.S News has made changes to its ranking process over the years. This year, its list displays rankings for the top 75 percent of schools in each category, up from 50 percent. In addition, U.S. News has given more weight to graduation rates than in the past. [An FAQ page gives a complete explanation of the methodology U.S. news uses to rank colleges.]

Washington Monthly began its research into colleges in 2005, thinking that it would be an interesting, one-time exercise. Washington Monthly observed that “while jobs that allow you to lose billions of other people’s dollars and wreck the economy before you turn thirty have traditionally been limited to graduates of a few select institutions, a steady focus on service has not.”

So, its first college guide, and those that have followed, called attention to service-oriented schools, in an effort to highlight the value of service as “laying the foundation for the kind of nation we want to become.”

This year’s rankings include a new category often dismissed by other lists: community colleges. Also, in response a rising demand among students for service opportunities, the 2010 report expands what it looks at to determine service rankings: In addition to rating colleges on the number of students participating in ROTC and the Peace Corps, WM factors new factors, including how many students engage in community service, and whether a college provides matching dollars for service-oriented scholarships like AmeriCorps.

To get a flavor of the rankings, here are some of the surprises you’ll find in a detailed look at the charts:

  • While the top 20 national universities on the U.S News rankings are private schools, 13 of Washington Monthly’s top 20 are taxpayer supported.
  • South Carolina State and the Newark campus of Rutgers University outrank University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania [34], NYU [47] and Notre Dame [57].
  • Five of WM’s top eleven universities are part of the University of California system.
  • Washington University in St. Louis, ranked #12 by U.S. News, ranks 36th,  according to Washington Monthly, “in part because only 5 percent of its undergraduates qualify for Pell Grants.
  • Boston’s Northeastern University, 18th on U.S. News, is 172nd in Washington Monthly, “because it enrolls few low-income students and has a lower graduation rate than it should.”
  • Washington-DC area colleges American University, George Washington and the University of Virginia do poorly in the Washington Monthly rankings “because they have Pell Grant rates of 10 percent or less”  “Everyone pays for these institutions through tax subsidies and federal grants, but for the most part, only the well-off need to apply,” says WM.

One can only hope that parents, students, guidance counselors, media commentators and other universities will look at the Washington Monthly approach, look at themselves and their aspirations, and come to some new conclusions about what makes a college or university “the best.”