What's wrong with these college rankings?

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY As a Californian, I had to shake my head this week when I saw The Washington Monthly's ranking this week of the country's top 30 colleges and universities.

Unlike the usual list of top schools, Ivy League institutions didn't crack the top 10 spots. (I was definitely OK with that!) While the top 20 universities in the US News college rankings are private, 13 of Washington Monthly's best 20 universities are public.

The No. 1 school on the magazine's list is the University of California, San Diego, which is a highly respected research university. Texas A&M University came in No. 2. Three other University of California campuses claimed top 10 positions: UCLA, University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Riverside.

Washington Monthly's top 10 universities

1. University of California, San Diego
2. Texas A&M University
3. Stanford University
4. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
5. University of California, Berkeley
6. University of California, Los Angeles
7. Case Western Reserve University
8. University of Washington, Seattle
9. University of California, Riverside
10. Georgia Institute of Technology

Washington Monthly ranked schools based on three factors:

  • Social mobility: The magazine favored schools that enroll many low-income students that go on to graduate
  • Research: Schools that are research institutions and produce more Ph.D.s get got extra points
  • Service: Schools that offered community service programs or other ways for students to give back also got higher scores

U. of California and low-income students

To their credit, the University of California campuses do accept a large percentage of low-income students. Certainly, the system is far more inclusive than the vast majority of research universities. But as a Californian, what bothers me about these schools is the price that impoverished students must pay to attend.

Want to guess what the cost for one year at U. of California, San Diego, is for a student whose parents make a meager $20,000 a year in income? Roughly $27,858. After subtracting grants, an impoverished California student would have to borrow more than $9,000 just to pay for one year of schooling. I find this tragic.

If you think I've got my figures wrong, use the net price calculator for UCSD or any of the other U. of California campuses and you'll see that all the universities in the state's system are expensive for poor students. UCSD is an excellent research facility, but is it the best institution for low-income students? I can think of many schools that would provide bright, needy students with an excellent education without saddling them with onerous debt.

It's not enough for the University of California campuses to welcome low-income students. These institutions need to make sure that these students can afford their education.

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