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For a different take on what makes colleges the "best," take a look at an alternative way of ranking schools--based on the good they do for the future of America.

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.

Based on WM’s standards, top-ranked schools in U.S News—for example, the highly sought after Yale and Princeton–don’t even make 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 They’re superseded by schools like the University of California San Diego and South Carolina State University, "a school relegated to a bottom tier in U.S. News."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 [drum roll, please]...Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male school in Atlanta.

How does Washington Monthly come to these iconoclastic 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). [More details here.]

"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. [For a complete explanation of U.S. News’ ranking methodology, consult its FAQ here.]

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."

[Cross-posted from Occasional Planet]

Originally posted to Lefty on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 06:53 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Well, I think (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      it's still to go by anyone's rigid rankings of what makes a college "the best," given that students have such a range of needs, interests, goals, and aspirations.   picked a school because it was small (I was shy and afraid I'd be overwhelmed at a large university), not isolated somewhere (I'm big-city born and raised), a woman's college (I came of age in an era when only boys were allowed to be leaders in high school), and it had horseback riding.

      De-orangify Congress: Justin Coussoule for Oh-08

      by anastasia p on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:02:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  #6! (5+ / 0-)


    Interesting way to define them. Esp like grad rates...doesn't do much good to pay $50k a year if you don't graduate...most of the time.

      •  Graduation rates..... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        are counter to selectivity.  If you are very selective most people can graduate.  If you are open to letting students who need more tutoring and mentoring in, you are sure to lose some, especially if they come from families with less experience in college or lower incomes.

        Research for liberal arts colleges is expensive- not sure it is solid in that instance.  Still, it is an interesting ranking.

        I agree that the dropout mill schools are problematic.  

        You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad. Aldous Huxley

        by murrayewv on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 09:26:11 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's why the most significant stat ... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          regarding graduation rates is the actual graduation rate in relation to the predicted one.  The colleges and universities that rank highly there are effectively helping at-risk students to graduate.  Here are the top 10 national universities in that category:

          1. South Carolina State (where a whopping 71% of students receive Pell Grants)
          1. UC Davis
          1. La Verne (which I admit I never heard of)
          1. Penn State
          1. UC Irvine
          1. Samford
          1. Syracuse
          1. UC Santa Barbara
          1. Duquesne
          1. UC Riverside
  •  I Found Their List Interesting On Many Different (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lulu57, blueoasis, frankzappatista, Hedwig

    levels. I also like they ranked junior colleges. My brother in his 30s decided to go back to college and he started at a two year school. He then went to a four year school that is on the US News top 50. He openly says he got a better education at the junior college. At least in his experience the teachers at the junior college were more engaged. Smaller classes. Just better across the board.

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:05:02 PM PDT

  •  I Am Also Glad You Noticed This (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueoasis, Hedwig

    Five of WM’s top eleven universities are part of the University of California system.

    That jumped up at me as well. My family for a few generations back are products of the state schools in Illinois. We got really, really good educations.

    I'll put the education I got at Western Illinois University against any Ivy League school. Might not look as good on the resume, but it was a flat out wonderful experience.

    I've always felt our system was second to only CA, and I guess if you believe WM analysis there are a lot of really good state schools out there.

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:11:42 PM PDT

    •  I felt much the same way about my educaton ... (0+ / 0-)

      at Illinois State.  I was offered admission at some much more selective colleges (Vanderbilt, Emory and the University of Illinois), but I grew up in Urbana and wanted to get away from home, and I couldn't afford the private schools.  The best teacher I've ever had at any level was a Professor of Political Science who I took for 3 courses dealting with international relations and foreign policy.  He made no secret about the fact that he came to ISU because he was a lot more interested in teaching than in publishing articles in obscure journals that nobody ever read, and that ISU (at least at that point) emphasized teaching rather than the "publish or perish" rat race.

      I've never had a job involved in foreign relations, but the analytical skills that I learned in his classes are something I've used in EVERY job I ever had, and helped get me through law school in the top 10% of my class.  Plus, if you did well in his classes, he remembered you, and he wrote GREAT letters of recommendation for his best students.

  •  Some of the colleges (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... that Washington Monthly rates highly for do-gooderism are also on WM's list of College Dropout Factories.

    Go ahead - ask me how I know. I will say, however, that I work at an historic college with an exceedingly high minority population and almost 90% first generation & low-income. WM apparently compares our student population with student populations from schools with a preponderance of students from stable (such that it is) families and good homes in nice neighborhoods - there is no comparing, however.

    Thus, I would take these ratings with a large shaker of salt.

    Damn you and your faint praise!

    by indubitably on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:17:36 PM PDT

    •  IMHO I Don't Think Most Folks (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      remotely grasp how small of a percentage of people that start college actually finish.

      "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

      by webranding on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:20:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The issue is this: (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Students coming from relatively (so to speak) stable backgrounds with parents who have completed Bachelors or higher degrees have a much, much higher chance of graduating from college than students from less stable - oh, alright, I'll say it - less affluent families who are also the first in their families to attend college.

        Damn you and your faint praise!

        by indubitably on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:30:20 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  No I Totally Get That (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          airmarc, indubitably, emilysdad

          My mom has a degree and my father a PhD. I am the first male in four generations that doesn't have a PhD. I just have a MA. Clearly education was talked about and reinforced 24/7 in my house. For those that live in households where that isn't the case I can only assume it must be much, much harder.

          I mean when I was looking at grad schools my dad used his two weeks of vacation and we literally drove all around the country visiting schools. I think 17 of them. It was a wonderful experience, but one I don't think many folks without "means" ever experience.

          "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

          by webranding on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:35:46 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Education was stressed ad naseum in my (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            house while growing up.  It is my understanding that my mother was the first to get a Bachelor's degree in her family.  What I'm not sure about is how extended 'her family' meant (aunts, uncles, cousins???).  Out of her sibs, parents, grandparents and ggparents, she was first.  She got her degree in 1983 and her brother had received an Associates many years prior.  In her family, girls didn't go to college.  She graduated 1 class short of a triple major (comp sci, accounting, and mathematics) and something like .1 off of getting honors.  Her degree was in comp sci.  I think she also has some Associate degrees.  I was tasked with helping her type her papers for classes.... I was infinitely happy when the TRS-80 became available and I didn't have to retype the whole damned paper when she edited.  I was in high school when she was finishing her Bachelor's.

            Dad never received a Bachelor's.  But, he does have at least one Associates degree (in comp sci).  Both my parents were taking college classes since coming back to the US in 1975 while working 'normal' jobs and sis and I were in public school.  Mom worked for H&R Block and dad was in the USAF.

            I was second to get a Bachelor's degree.  I went to the college that was my mom's dream to attend but was never allowed.  My degree was in architecture.  I also have 2 Associate degrees and 5 courses short of a Master's.  My sister has 2 Bachelor's and an MBA (which was the first Masters).  It is assumed that her three girls will also be going to college when their turns come.  Many of my 1st cousins have received at least a Bachelor's and only one of their parents has a Bachelor's (received while her kids were in high school) and a few have Associates.  There are 12 of us and I'm fairly certain that 7 of us have at least Bachelor's and one is just starting her college career.

            Education was stressed as a ticket to a life of YOUR choice and not doing what you had to do to survive.

      •  I do think colleges should be dinged for this (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        31% is atrocious. What it means is that WVU is recruiting students who have no hope of finishing - getting these kids into student loan debt in the process. This puts them down there with the astoundingly bad University of Phoenix and other for-profit stafford loan schemes which essentially drain students for their student loan money in a similar manner to the sub-prime mortgage market.

        Either the high schools get a ton more money to add a 5th  year to kids who need it, or the universities add a pre-frosh term, free of charge, to all admits who need it, but either way, the current system of letting them in so they can fail and get into debt is obscene.

        •  The 5th year solution is a good idea (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          getlost, nchristine

          However, working with these students like I do, day in and day out, I can testify few colleges are willing or able to provide the support many at-risk students need. Keeping them in college until they graduate requires they have personal relationships with faculty, staff, etc., and tons of academic support to help them catch up with kids from good schools.

          Worse, often these kids are coming out of families and communities which give lip service to them receiving an education, but don't really mean it.

          The attitude that all anyone's doing is letting them in to fail is sad, imo. It's true, for-profits like U of Phoenix do just that - but those of us working legitimately at non-profit schools with high risk students know these kids do have a chance and they do have the desire - they just need more time and much, much, much more support.

          It is simply a false comparison to assume a native or Black kid just coming out of foster care suffering from epilepsy likely from repeated punches to the head from an abusive parent who is now in prison, a kid who is smart as a whip, but coming from an extremely impoverished and unsupportive background is on immediately the same footing as a  nice white kid from a good, financially stable family and excellent schools.

          We get them graduated, we get them good jobs - one of my "babies" in fact just got hired as a director of a nationally known service organization --- but we fail to match the same criteria as Harvard or University of Washington, and I'm sure faculty at such schools would roll their eyes at the workloads we carry. But there it is. The equality gap keeps growing, but we're damned if our kids are going to be shut out, just because theywere born into the wrong socio-economic status.

          Damn you and your faint praise!

          by indubitably on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 08:44:45 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  I guess my problem is these kids (0+ / 0-)

            have problems coming in, and then they spend a year or two in college, drop out, and have an even bigger problem - crushing debt.

            If we aren't willing to do anything about the real causes of this problem, which I'm sure you're right about - is it still ethical to reward colleges on lists like this when they are creating the debt end of this equation?

            U of Minnesota just eliminated General College, which was a place kids from difficult backgrounds could be admitted and move on to successful college careers. I wouldn't want to see U of M rewarded for the inevitable result of that.

            •  Well (0+ / 0-)

              One thing we do is work tirelessly at finding these kids grants and scholarships. That's a must.

              In addition, in a very short time, the problem isn't just going to be minority kids - estimates coming from very reliable sources are that 50-60-70%+ of entering freshmen will be developmental in a very few years, if not already. Already schools are seeing kids from good neighborhoods - not the elite, but good neighborhoods - coming in reading at 6th grade levels and unable to do college math. The gap is growing, and quickly.

              I don't see we're willing to do much about it. I think individually we can do some things and in localized groups. But too many people are equating the amoral, money hungry Universities of Phoenix out there with the small colleges like mine which have historically dealt with exactly these problems, and done so fairly successfully. My department, for example, has a 77% success rate. But I'd be hardpressed to think of one well paid research faculty from an elite school who'd be willing to do half the work we do.

              Damn you and your faint praise!

              by indubitably on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 09:16:17 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  obvioulsy I'm not familiar with your college (0+ / 0-)

                I was looking at the graduation rates for major research institutions rated highly on this list. One was at 31%. That's unacceptable - 2/3rds of those students are incurring cost for no end.

        •  I don't think you can look at grad. rates in ... (0+ / 0-)

          isolation, but rather in comparison to what would be expected given the admissions profile.  For example, South Carolina State, an historically black college with a huge 71% of its students receiving Pell Grants, has a graduation rate of "only" 45%.  But the expected graduation rate there is only 25%, so somebody is doing an excellent job of admitting students who are at VERY high risk of dropping out and actually enabling them to get a college degree.

    •  Dropout factories (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      webranding, Hedwig

      Hmm. That was going to be my next post. I'll look into that correlation and report on it later. Thanks for the heads up and the salt shaker.

  •  It is good to have different measures... (0+ / 0-)

    all measuring different things. Doctors and everyone else with even a hint of intellect do.

    The notion that any single measure is the one to use is, of course, completely asinine.

    I'm gonna go eat a steak. And fuck my wife. And pray to GOD - hatemailapalooza, 052210

    by punditician on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:22:47 PM PDT

  •  Just A Side Comment (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I've interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people for a job. Since I spent most of my adult life working in DC, many had Ivy League educations. At least for me where they went to college almost didn't matter.

    The first thing I always looked to was did they do an internship. You know actually went to work in the field I was in. A close second was did they have a military background.

    Being in the DC area there were a lot of those folks.

    I found those those items were a far great indication of future performance then anything else.

    "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

    by webranding on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:29:03 PM PDT

    •  This would be a vital measurement (0+ / 0-)

      Community colleges seem much more tuned in to getting their students internships than state universities, I've noticed. Unless you're recruited for an in-house internship (working with a prof on research) a lot of schools leave you out in the cold. It pays to have a good advisor in this case. Community colleges seem more agressive in matching students with internships in their field.

      "I think the earth is a living being. I keep waiting for it to rear up and scrape us all off its back." - Tom Waits

      by frankzappatista on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 08:25:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  my school - UGA is #1 in Playboy's Party School (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    don't think that doesn't matter!

    "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason." - Thomas Paine

    by shrike on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 07:45:21 PM PDT

  •  My college does better here (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    than on the US News ranking, but we get dinged for the work-study criteria. Not sure what that means. I remember doing work study as a writing tutor, which seems perfectly useful to me.

    Over at US News we do great except for reputation-like measures. Since liberal arts college reputations are very entrenched, we'll never do well in any  measure that essentially pulls that, and we'll never be near the top of those rankings, despite a number of innovative programs.

    A while back Poets & Writers started ranking MFA programs and that has been similarly disastrous. their major criteria is the number of students that apply to the programs. They say that whether applicants want to apply to a program tells them lots about the quality of the program.

    It really doesn't - it tells you lots about the marketing skills of the particular program, and about the money that program offers to students as stipends/fellowships. It doesn't tell you a thing about teaching quality. I have it on good word that one of the top programs, the U of Minnesota, is so atrociously managed some even think it might go bust in the near future due to lack of dedication from its faculty...yet, there it was, in the top tier.

    •  AWP at least attempts to do a good job (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      in evaluating MFA programs. They came to visit our somewhat fledgling (15 years ago) program, and sat in on our fiction/poetry workshops to evaluate the instruction. Probably more difficult to rank instruction now that MFA programs are popping up like mushrooms, but AWP is trying imo.

      "I think the earth is a living being. I keep waiting for it to rear up and scrape us all off its back." - Tom Waits

      by frankzappatista on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 08:31:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  USNews is a joke (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    frankzappatista, emilysdad

    If you saw the questionnaires, you'd get the drift. They are pathetic. It's sad that so many Americans are bamboozled by those rankings, but you know what PT Barnum said: there's a sucker born every minute, and any high school student or parent who makes a decision based on those rankings deserves to lose her/his money.

    The Carnegie Foundation and the NSF at least go through extensive research in order to produce their rankings.

    There are two kinds of people in this world. The kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don't.

    by upstate NY on Sun Aug 29, 2010 at 08:15:21 PM PDT

  •  We're #3! We're #3!!! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Hey, how does UC San Diego have more faculty in the National Academies than UCLA does??  Don't we get extra points for having Nobel Laureates?  Aww.

    Oh, and did we mention the weather?  :-)  Come to where the sun still shines in December, and where you can wear shorts in February!  :-D

  •  Go, The FARM!!! (0+ / 0-)

    Just goes to show you, it IS possible to be an "elite institution of higher learning" and still produce graduates who actually give a damn about something other than their pocketbooks ;)

    The Leland Stanford Junior University: Ranked #4 - and the highest ranked private university. Not too shabby!

    My alma mater gets on my nerves sometimes but I still love that there was where I was encouraged to be political, rather than discouraged.  And I am still proud to be an alumna, all grousing aside ;)

    If you don't stand for something, you will go for anything. Visit Maat's Feather

    by shanikka on Mon Aug 30, 2010 at 12:54:01 AM PDT

  •  Here are what I would call the "pure ... (0+ / 0-)

    do-gooder rankings" (namely the top 10 national universities in community service participation and hours served):

    National Universities:

    1. UCLA
    1. St. Louis
    1. Texas
    1. Washington U. (St. Louis)
    1. Alabama, Birmingham
    1. UC Santa Barbara
    1. Portland State
    1. Fordham
    1. UNC Chapel Hill
    1. St. Thomas (Minn.)

    Here are the top 10 national universities in Peace Corps rankings:

    1. American
    1. William and Mary
    1. Chicago
    1. Clark
    1. George Washington
    1. SUNY Env. Science and Forestry
    1. UNC Chapel Hill
    1. Georgetown
    1. Virginia
    1. Dartmouth

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