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Colleges with the best value? New rankings upend conventional wisdom (+video)

Washington Monthly this week released 'bang for your buck' rankings of colleges and universities. The rankings come a few days after President Obama launched a major initiative around college affordability.

By Staff writer / August 27, 2013

Students walk out of Geisel Library on the La Jolla campus of the University of California, San Diego. A new ranking lists UCSD as No. 1 when scoring on criteria like social mobility, commitment to research, and commitment to service.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / File

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Quick, what's the top national university?

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Harvard? Princeton? Instead, try the University of California in San Diego.

A set of college rankings released this week by Washington Monthly uses a different sort of metrics than, say, the more familiar kind used by U.S. News & World Report. Rather than seeking to rate universities based on reputation or difficulty of admission, the evaluators looked at how colleges and universities did based on what it considers three public goods: social mobility, commitment to research, and commitment to service.

Institutions were rewarded for things like enrolling low-income students, helping them to graduate on time, and keeping tuition low. Other factors: the percentage of graduates who go on to earn PhDs, how much work-study money is spent on service, and community service participation. Many of the results are surprising.

The rankings, which Washington Monthly has issued annually since 2005, are particularly well timed, coming a few days after President Obama launched a major initiative around college affordability and called for a new national ranking system in which federal student-aid dollars would be tied to college performance – including things like graduation rates and sticker price.

"There are schools out there who are terrific values. But there are also schools out there that have higher default rates than graduation rates. And taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing students to go to schools where the kids aren't graduating," Mr. Obama said in a speech last week at the University at Buffalo in New York. "We’re going to start rating colleges not just by which college is the most selective, not just by which college is the most expensive, not just by which college has the nicest facilities – you can get all of that on the existing rating systems. What we want to do is rate them on who's offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck."

In fact, the lists that Washington Monthly released this week include rankings of the best "bang for your buck" schools – ones that combine better-than-expected graduation rates with an affordable price.

To even rank, schools had to have a student body with at least 20 percent receiving Pell Grants (offered to low-income students); have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, meeting or exceeding the graduation rate that would be predicted based on the composition of the student body; and have a loan default rate among graduates of 10 percent or less.

Out of 1,572 colleges and universities in the broader rankings, just 349 made the bang-for-the-buck rankings. No. 1: Amherst College in Massachusetts, followed by Queens College, CUNY (City University of New York); Baruch College (CUNY) in New York; California State University in Fullerton; and the University of Florida in Gainesville.

This is a measure "that ought to be of great interest to the vast majority of students going to college but not going to the Ivy League," says Kevin Carey, director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program in Washington, who was the guest editor for the rankings. "Where do I have a good chance of graduating and won’t break the bank?"

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