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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.

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The problem with ranking systems like U.S. News's, Mr. Carey says, is that they're somewhat vague and self-reinforcing – "everyone knows that's a good school because smart people go there, and smart people go there because it's a good school" – and also irrelevant to the bulk of students, who aren't going to an elite institution.

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Ranking institutions instead by their larger value to society – in terms of their commitment to social mobility, research, and service – yields far different results, he says – ones that are more useful to many Americans.

So the University of California schools, for instance, fare unusually well in the national rankings, with four of the top 10 institutions – despite the fact that in recent years California has slashed aid to state schools and they, in turn, have raised tuition. The rankings reflect the UC system's quality of research along with its commitment to enrolling low-income students, Carey says.

At UC-San Diego, 47 percent of students receive Pell Grants. At Riverside, 57 percent do. Contrast that with the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, where just 6 percent of students get Pell Grants.

"It's the difference between elite institutions serving as an engine of social mobility as opposed to a barrier to social mobility," Carey says.

With so many weighted factors, the reasons for an institution's high (or low) ranking vary. Some that come out on top are familiar names: Stanford University in California is ranked sixth on the national list, and Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass., is eighth.

Among liberal arts colleges, Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania comes out on top, thanks largely to its dedication to service and research. It spends more work-study money on service than any other liberal arts college. Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., which ranks second, is helped by the large number of graduates who go on to the Peace Corps and to earn PhDs. And Berea College in Kentucky, ranked third, has a staggering 93 percent of its student body receiving Pell Grants, and it boasts an impressive net price (sticker price minus average financial aid) of just $909. Berea College charges no tuition and serves first-generation college students.

Conversely, many well-regarded names are absent from the top of the list. Don't look for Yale or Brown in the top 50. George Washington University is ranked all the way down at 94, and American University in Washington at 114. Both charge high tuition, enroll few low-income students, and have lower graduation rates than statistics suggest they should.

Washington Monthly also ranks master's universities and baccalaureate colleges – institutions that accept almost all their applicants and draw from a more regional pool – and community colleges. The baccalaureate list is topped by two historically black institutions, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina (which boasts a net price of $909) and Tuskegee University in Alabama, which comes out on top in its commitment to research.

Both schools graduate fewer than half their students (44 and 43 percent, respectively), but their graduation rate is much higher than would be expected, given the makeup of their student body.

"It's succeeding with those not likely to succeed where you add value," says Carey.

[Editor's note: The photo caption for this story was revised to correct the name of the library pictured and to clarify which college ranking system was being discussed.]


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