Washington Monthly College Rankings Redefine Excellence

Billed as the anti-U.S. News, Washington Monthly's college rankings favor schools that do good and not just serve families that do well.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on September 1, 2023
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Alex Pasquariellois a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
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  • Washington Monthly recently released its new college rankings for 2023.
  • Its criteria include social mobility, public service, and research.
  • The magazine's methodology was conceived as a direct response to U.S. News, whose rankings favor wealth and privilege.
  • Elite colleges appearing atop Washington Monthly's lists serve low-income students and national public interests.

The recently released 2023 Washington Monthly rankings feature some familiar names at the top of the lists, though not for the usual reasons.

A self-proclaimed alternative to the 800-pound rankings gorilla, U.S. News & World Report, Washington Monthly doesn't aim to measure wealth and status but rather social mobility and service.

Touting a Kennedyesque mission, the magazine aims to redefine what constitutes excellence in higher education, citing the need to measure what colleges do for their country, instead of for themselves.

How Washington Monthly Ranks Colleges

Since 2005, Washington Monthly has published college rankings meant to provide an alternative to what U.S. News proffers.

Where U.S. News rewards colleges for their wealth, prestige, and exclusivity, thereby aggravating America's racial and class divides, the magazine's website states, the Monthly ranks schools based on three very different criteria meant to do the opposite.

Those criteria include social mobility, public service, and research. The top-rated schools excel at all three.

To measure social mobility, the magazine evaluates data related to graduation rates, the number of Pell Grant recipients, the percentage of students receiving loans, racial and ethnic diversity, net tuition costs, and earnings 10 years after graduation.

The community service component looks at student and alumni participation in AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, ROTC and military service, and campus community service programs. It also examines voting engagement and degrees granted in service-related fields such as education and social work.

And for research, criteria include institutional research spending, the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s awarded, the number of alumni who earn doctorates, and faculty awards. It's not exactly made clear how research relates to the public service mantra, though we can assume the advancement of knowledge, particularly in scientific and medical pursuits, benefits society in myriad ways.

What is clear, however, is the magazine's disdain for U.S. News' rankings hegemony and skewed definition of quality. To introduce this year's results, Washington Monthly begins with a recap of the recent boycotts of U.S. News among colleges, law schools, and medical schools that have grown weary of the magazine's perpetuation of wealth and privilege as markers of excellence.

Rather than laud the universities that mostly cater to the sons and daughters of the wealthy, Washington Monthly counters, we reward those that welcome students from everyday and low-income backgrounds and help them to graduate on time, with good jobs and low debt.

The New 2023 Rankings

Still, a quick glance at Washington Monthly's rankings reveals some of the same names found atop the U.S. News lists.

Here are its top 10 national universities:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  4. University of Pennsylvania
  5. Princeton University
  6. Duke University
  7. Columbia University
  8. Yale University
  9. University of California, Berkeley
  10. Cornell University

Yet if you dig into the numbers, you quickly realize why the list is dominated by Ivy-Plus universities. They all have high graduation rates, affordable net costs for low-income students, star faculty who garner research awards, and even, perhaps surprisingly, decent stats related to public service programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps.

Other familiar names fall short on these measures. The magazine points out that Brown University, which U.S. News ranks #13, appears at #43 on Washington Monthly's list because of its lack of low-income students and its abysmally low ratings for public and national service.

Among national liberal arts colleges, familiar names appear once again, but with some new faces among them. The top 10 are as follows:

  1. Harvey Mudd College
  2. Berea College
  3. Wesleyan University
  4. Swarthmore College
  5. Haverford College
  6. Williams College
  7. Amherst College
  8. Washington and Lee University
  9. Pomona College
  10. Bryn Mawr College

Harvey Mudd College, in California, ranks #29 in U.S. News, but here it assumes the top spot because of its scores for earnings performance (1), research (2), and social mobility (3).

Similarly, U.S. News ranks Berea College at #26, whereas it lands at #2 here, claiming top honors for both Pell performance and social mobility.

Washington Monthly also ranks master's universities, the top three being SUNY Geneseo, California State University, Los Angeles, and California State University, Northridge. In fact, California's public institutions dominate this list thanks to their affordability and mission of social mobility. Among the top 11 master's universities, seven are Cal State schools.

And it ranks bachelor's colleges. The top three are Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, Elizabeth City State University, and California State University, Maritime Academy.

What's more, by isolating the social mobility data, the magazine offers a Bang for the Buck assessment, grouping institutions by region. In the Northeast, for example, the three top schools are the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Washington Monthly deserves credit for reinterpreting what constitutes quality in higher education, focusing on social mobility and diversity long before U.S. News began incorporating such measures. But like other attempts to usurp U.S. News as the top rankings dog, such as those by Forbes and Money and the recent interactive effort by The New York Times, Washington Monthly doesn't figure to become the gold standard.

Despite all the boycotts and backlash U.S. News has faced, it retains its vice grip, for better or worse, on the American college-going public.