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A few months ago, the Obama administration completed a remarkably successful run of sticking it to large corporations that make a profit in higher education. First, as part of the omnibus legislation that produced the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Obama pushed through a wholesale reform of the student loan industry, taking away tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to private banks and using the money to increase financial aid for low-income students. Then, in 2011, Obama stamped down on the excesses of for-profit colleges that have been raking in billions of dollars from federal financial aid programs while leaving students with low-value degrees and crushing debt. Under the administration’s controversial “gainful employment” rules, finalized in June, colleges whose graduates don’t earn enough money in the job market to pay back their loans will lose federal aid, a penalty that will effectively shut those colleges down.
These are exactly the kind of progressive, pro-student reforms Obama was elected to enact. But they also lead to a question: What’s next? In his first address to Congress, the president set a bold goal of regaining the international lead in college graduation by 2020. But only 10 percent of students attend for-profit colleges, and Obama’s loan reforms, while admirable, aren’t going to have a significant effect on the number of people who ultimately earn a college degree. Meanwhile, the latest research suggests that many students in traditional colleges aren’t learning very much, even as tuition is rising out of sight.
For a Democratic president, battling big business is the easy part. If Obama’s 2020 goal is going to become more than an empty slogan, he’s going to have to do something considerably harder: take on the entrenched interests in the traditional public and nonprofit higher education sector and get them to do more on behalf of students and the public. That means defining what, exactly, a public-minded college should do.
We believe that the Washington Monthly college rankings provide an excellent answer to that question. Conventional rankings like those published by U.S. News & World Report are designed to show what colleges can do for you. Since 2005, our rankings have posed a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, isn’t just important for undergraduates. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they offer students from low-income families the path to a better life, and when they shape the character of future leaders. And we all pay for it, through hundreds of billions of dollars in public subsidies. Everyone has a stake in how that money is spent.
That’s why one-third of each college’s score on our rankings is based on social mobility: How committed are they to enrolling low-income students and helping them earn degrees? Our second category looks at research production and success at sending undergraduates on to PhDs. Finally, we give great weight to service. It’s not enough to help students look out for themselves. The best colleges encourage students to give something back...