Washington Monthly’s College Rankings Are Overrated

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

September 11, 2020

By: James Murphy

This Monday, the US News Best Colleges lists will be released for the 36th year in a row. Whether it’s college football teams, local Thai restaurants, or public schools, people can’t seem to get enough of rankings.

Since we’re not going to get rid of rankings, let’s make them better. That is what the Washington Monthly sought to do when it introduced its own college rankings in 2005. “There’s a good reason for the American fixation with rankings,” the editors wrote. “If done correctly, they can help tell us what’s working and what’s not. Of course universities ought to be judged. The key is judging the right things.”

Unfortunately, Washington Monthly’s college rankings are not judging the right things, at least not all of them, which has led to some very questionable ratings when it comes to liberal arts colleges. 

The magazine ranks colleges and universities on their contributions to social mobility, research, and service. As the editors put it, “While other guides ask what colleges can do for students, we ask what colleges are doing for the country.”

These are admirable aims and good measures, but only if they’re done right, and Washington Monthly does not do them right. Social mobility is clearly more important to measure than faculty salaries and alumni giving are, but you have to measure social mobility properly in order to balance both access and completion. It’s not good if a college enrolls a lot of low-income students and most of them never graduate, but it’s also bad if a university barely enrolls any low-income students, even if they graduate at high rates. 

That brings us to Washington and Lee University. Washington and Lee was ranked number two by Washington Monthly, after Berea College, among all liberal arts colleges for social mobility. Last year it was ranked number one. 

Source: Washington Monthly

Washington Monthly’s ranking of Washington and Lee on social mobility is absurd and reflective of a fundamental flaw.

In 2017, the New York Times published an Opportunity Insights report that identified Washington and Lee as the third worst college in the nation when it came to enrolling more wealthy students than low income and working class ones. 

Opportunity Insights–a team of researchers and policy analysts–looked at a decade’s worth of tax and college enrollment data that allowed it to provide the most robust picture to date of who goes where in higher education. From 1999 to 2010, Washington and Lee enrolled more students from households in the top 1% of income for the US than it did students from the bottom 60% (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Even more unbelievable, Washington and Lee enrolled about the same number of students from the bottom 40% for income as it did from the top tenth of a percent.

Figure 2

How could a university whose student body so heavily overrepresented the wealthy a decade ago be rated number two for social mobility in 2020? 

One plausible explanation is that Washington and Lee made very large strides in enrolling low-income and working-class students in the past decade. The evidence does not support this claim. 

Compare Washington and Lee’s enrollment rate for students who receive Pell Grants to the rate at top-rated Berea College. Pell Grants typically go to students from households with income below $60,000, which is close to half the household in the nation. About 30% of all undergraduates receive Pell aid. Although Washington and Lee did improve its Pell enrollment rate from 6% in 2009 to 9.5% in 2017, it maintained one of the lowest Pell enrollment rates in the nation. It continued throughout to rank in the bottom five percent of all colleges nationwide in terms of Pell Grant student enrollment. During this same period, more than 80% of Berea College students received Pell Grants.

Figure 3

The problems with Washington Monthly’s rankings are simple. 

First, a quarter of a college’s social mobility score comes from students’ earnings after graduation and loan repayment rates. Washington and Lee students earn much more than the magazine’s model predicts, in part because that prediction is made against the location of a college. This approach might make sense for a regional public university, but it does not work for a liberal arts college that draws students from across the nation. Washington and Lee is located in rural Virginia, but more than 80% of its undergrads come from out of state. 

Washington Monthly’s rankings make no distinction between earnings outcomes for Pell Grant-eligible students and those who are not, because the federal government does not publish that data. (It should). As a result, we do not know whether the few students who come from families in the bottom 40% of the income scale that Washington and Lee enrolls are seeing the benefits that their rich classmates are. It is no surprise, either, that a school with lots of wealthy students has graduates earning high incomes. Nepotism and social networking are a hell of a jobs program. 

Second, the Washington Monthly rankings focus too little on where students come from, specifically their economic class and environmental background. The top-ranked liberal arts colleges appear to provide great support for the low-income students they enroll. They just don’t enroll nearly enough of them. According to the Washington Monthly, Washington and Lee graduated only 46 students with Pell Grants. Claremont McKenna graduated only 30, and, bizarrely, Providence Christian College in California (#5 for social mobility) graduated just three! Three!

Opportunity Insights data reveal that several of the colleges in Washington Monthly’s  top ten for social mobility have a terrible record when it comes to socioeconomic diversity. Figure 4 shows the portion of a college’s undergraduates that came from each economic quintile. Those thick bands of green dominating the graphs? They belong to students who come from the top fifth of households in terms of income. At Washington and Lee, the top 20% made up more than 80% of the student population.

The whole point of the Washington Monthly college rankings is to call attention to institutions that are serving society and encourage others to follow suit. This mission cannot succeed if it continues to overrate colleges like Washington and Lee. The magazine needs to change its methodology to include a much larger role for access alongside outcomes. 

A coalition of education and civil rights groups from the Center for American Progress to UnidosUS have called on all colleges to evidence “a meaningful commitment” to diversity, inclusion and socioeconomic mobility that stretches from recruitment and admissions to financial aid, student support and completion.

Higher education can be a powerful elevator of social mobility, but only if working class students are allowed inside the elevator.