America’s Best Colleges, Rated a New Way

By Gary Feuerberg, Epoch Times
September 10, 2013 12:57 am Last Updated: September 10, 2013 4:09 am

WASHINGTON—The Washington Monthly magazine’s 2013 college rankings takes a totally new approach to rating schools.

The magazine’s September–October issue ranks national universities, liberal arts colleges, top 100 baccalaureate colleges, best and worst community colleges, and the best-bang-for-the-buck colleges.

Its criteria are different from the famous “U.S. News and World Report” college ranking. 

The first, second, and third place in the Washington Monthly’s National Universities category weren’t Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but the University of California–San Diego, University of California–Riverside, and Texas A&M University–College Station. The latter three are ranked in U.S. News 2013 at 38, 101, and 65, respectively. 

“This is not your typical college guide. It takes an entirely new approach to identifying high quality institutions,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, at the New America Foundation (NAF) event on Sept. 4.

The Lumina Foundation, which endorses the Washington Monthly endeavor, is an independent, private foundation with a mission to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees, certificates, and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. It currently is roughly 40 percent, said Merisotis.

Merisotis praised the methodology Washington Monthly uses to rank schools. To him, it’s better than other publications that make “status, or reputation, or institutional resources” the most important ingredients in college selection. He quoted the magazine, “Our rankings aim to identify institutions that are acting on behalf of the true public interest.” 

The Washington Monthly rankings distinguish schools in their “ability to improve social mobility, promote public service, and generate high quality research,” stated the NAF announcement.

The rankings identify schools that meet the needs, including financial, of students. High-ranking schools provide resources and programs to help students complete the student’s chosen program. They produce a high proportion of undergraduates that go on to earn PhDs. They encourage students to enter public service careers.

President’s Higher Education Plan

These criteria for rating colleges and universities align with issues that President Obama has raised in recent weeks. On Aug. 22, Obama suggested measuring institutions by average tuition, loan debt, and graduation rates. Obama wants the Department of Education to establish the new ratings by the time students select colleges in 2015. These ratings would stop short of producing a list of colleges ranked.

Obama wants to start rating colleges on their value to students. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results, and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future,” he said, on the White House blog.

The president’s point man for this initiative is James Kvaal, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Speaking at the NAF panel, Kvaal described three aims of the measurements they are seeking. 

First, is to reward schools that are doing a good job enrolling students, especially students with a disadvantaged background. The goal is to increase enrollments and degrees. 

Second, is to reward schools that make college more affordable. Tuition and fees have risen 257 percent from 1982–1983 to 2012–2013, while median family income has risen only 16 percent, according to Whitehouse.gov. 

One criterion for ranking is the cost of tuition after financial aid is subtracted. Another is school debt. The administration wants to see school loan repayment capped at 10 percent of monthly income. No prospective student should fear enrolling because of worries about paying the loan back. 

Third, is to reward schools that achieve results, such as “helping students graduate, or transfer to another institution, or get a job after graduation or go on to graduate school.” The president wants the nearly $150 billion in federal financial aid to be allocated to institutions not only by the number of students enrolled but also by the school’s performance on good outcomes.

Kvaal explained that the federal ratings are not meant to rank, say, the 23rd best university—traditional rankings do that—but to give students “a broad sense at which institutions are successful in delivering value and which aren’t.”

Washington Monthly Ratings

Different factors make an overall score for an institution. For the social mobility component, the percent of students who are receiving Pell Grants is one factor. Only families of students with modest household incomes below $50,000 are likely to receive Pell Grants, according the magazine. 

Another factor is the net price of attendance after taking out financial aid. 

Still another measure is the predicted graduation rate and actual graduation rate.

For middle- and lower-income families, who can’t afford to risk spending a lot of money to go to the wrong college, not graduate, and be saddled with a five-digit debt, the ranking of “America’s Best-Bang-For-The-Buck Colleges” may be the most useful. The list names 349 colleges and universities that do the “best job of helping non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.”

To make this list, at least 20 percent the college’s students must be receiving Pell Grants, the graduation rate must be at least 50 percent, and the loan default rate 10 percent or less (implying that graduates earn enough to pay off their school debt).

The best deals are with the public institutions. Only one for-profit school, Trident University International, made the “Best-Bang-For-The-Buck” list. 

CUNY Queens College in New York was No. 2 on the list and serves as an example of good value. Its statistics are as follows: students receiving Pell Grants, 45 percent; graduation rate, 53 percent; default loan rate, 5 percent; net price of attendance, $2,757. 

The report stated that Queens College has several programs that support minority and low-income students. For example, it provides intensive workshops for students who need remedial math and English. The report praises Queens College for admitting students that reflect the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of Queens. It provides programs for them to succeed.