Ranking the best colleges in America is an old game that newspapers and magazines play a lot for a pretty simple reason: It moves units to people who want to either be assured that the expensive education that they’re paying for/have paid for will continue to be valued, or to people who aspire to one day join the elite ranks of the perennial top-of-list universities: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, etc. The continued existence of U.S. News and World Report can probably be attributed to its college rankings, which place the five aforementioned schools in the first five spots on its list.
On that list—perhaps the most famous and influential of all college rankings—you have to scroll down to #18 to see a Texas school, at which point Rice University makes an appearance. You have to keep going to #20 before you hit the first public school, The University of California at Berkeley. (The first Texas public university, the University of Texas, shows up at #52.) All of this enforces a sort of conventional wisdom that’s hard to argue with: If your kid goes to Princeton or Harvard, the odds that he or she will be successful later in life are probably pretty good.
But there are other ways to rank universities, and Washington Monthly (no relation to Texas Monthly, alas) has some ideas about what they might be. In those rankings, meanwhile, public Texas institutions tend to show up considerably better than the elite private schools. The methodology behind it is sound, if a bit unconventional:
Our rankings have always rejected the idea that expense, luxury, and exclusivity should be held up as the highest values for colleges and students to aspire to. Instead, we ask a different question: What are colleges doing for the country? Higher education, after all, doesn’t just affect students. We all benefit when colleges produce groundbreaking research that drives economic growth, when they put students from lower-income families on 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 government-financed financial aid, tax breaks, and other spending.
To identify the most public-minded institutions, we rank every four-year college and university in America based on three criteria: social mobility, research, and public service. Instead of crediting colleges that reject the most applicants, we recognize those that do the best job of enrolling and graduating low-income students. Our rankings measure both pure research spending and success in preparing undergraduates to earn PhDs. And by giving equal weight to public service, we identify colleges that build a sense of obligation to their communities and the nation at large.
Using this criteria, there are some unconventional schools that place well. (UC-Berkeley, meanwhile, finishes third, proving that there’s at least some overlap between the different ways of ranking colleges.) For example: Texas A&M places 4th on their list of the best schools in the country, and UT-El Paso comes in at #8, 12 spots ahead of its more prestigious counterpart in Austin.
For A&M, the factors that influence its rank include: a relatively affordable net price that comes in just under $12,000; an 80% graduation rate (which exceeds the expected graduation rate by 11 points); $696 million in research expenditures, 458 science and engineering PhDs awarded; and strong service rankings (#1 for ROTC participation, with 44% of work-study funds going toward public service positions).
Perhaps even more surprising than A&M’s strong showing, though, is the ranking given to UTEP. That’s not a knock on UTEP’s actual worth as an institution, of course, but it’s surprising to see a relatively under-the-radar school like UTEP recognized by a national magazine. UTEP’s affordability is a big part of its ranking: with a net price of $3,258 (with 59% of students receiving Pell Grants) it offers significantly more value than the other schools of the 277 listed (indeed, no other school on the list comes in below even $5,000). The graduation rate at UTEP also far outstrips expectations—the 37% graduation rate exceeds the expected rate of 28%, a significant number for an affordable school made up largely of students attending with Pell Grants. The research numbers for UTEP aren’t staggeringly high, but they’re very competitive, usually hovering around the middle of the pack among the 277 schools despite costing a fraction of the price. UTEP exceeds, say, Fordham College and The New School in that capacity, both of which are ten times as expensive as El Paso’s university. In other words, an off-the-charts score on the “social mobility,” combined with the same sort of research and service aspects that one might expect from an average or above-average institution speaks highly of UTEP.
Of course, other Texas schools place well, too. The University of Texas might not achieve the high marks of its western affiliate, but a #20 ranking—several spots ahead of Vanderbilt, Princeton, and Duke—is nothing to sneeze at. Meanwhile, the crown jewel of Texas universities on other lists, Rice University, acquits itself on the Washington Monthly scale not too far behind where it lands on that from U.S. News and World Report, sliding down fewer than 20 spots to take #36. The rest of Texas, with the exception of UT-Dallas (#93), hovers outside the top 100.
None of this should be taken to mean that parents should stop dreaming of their brightest children attending Harvard and instead start wallpapering the room in UTEP Miners logos, or that the PhD from the University of Chicago is suddenly worthless compared to one from A&M, but there are more ways to value of an education than the conventional wisdom—and when measured in that way, Texas A&M and UTEP are among the nation’s finest schools.