For years,Washington Monthly has been rating and ranking the nation's colleges.
But for its 2014 edition, the magazine has done something new. It has put out a list of what it says are the nation's worst colleges. That is, schools with high tuition, low graduation rates and high student debt rates.
Consider the case of Ferrum College, a small, private, liberal arts school in southern Virginia. As the magazine points out, the school accepts over 90 percent of the kids who apply every year, but barely half ever come back for their second or sophomore year.
Ferrum students borrow more, default on their loans more and are less likely to graduate, compared with similar institutions. That's why Ferrum finds itself on the magazine's "worst" list.
A spokesperson for Ferrum College told NPR the school has decided to "take the high road" and not respond to the magazine's rankings. In fact, none of the schools on the "worst colleges" list has responded publicly. Private, for-profit and nonprofit schools are at the top of the list. Historically black colleges are also overrepresented.
Labeling colleges as the "worst" is controversial of course. But with more and more Americans feeling like they've been priced out of college or are not getting bang for their buck, questions of value and return on investment are getting lots of attention, especially from the Obama administration.
President Obama has asked the U.S. Department of Education to come up with a system to evaluate private and public institutions that receive federal funding. The stakes are high: $200 billion a year, mostly in student aid that colleges get from the government every year, whether or not they do a good job.
The specifics of the administration's proposal have not been made public yet, but the very idea of a "government-approved" rating system has definitely put higher education on notice.
So it's not surprising to see private and public college presidents oppose the idea. Their basic argument is that evaluating colleges and universities based on most any metric — tuition levels, how much students borrow, default rates, graduation rates or how much money students earn after they graduate — wouldn't be fair given the extraordinary diversity of institutions out there, each with its own "mission" in terms of cost and the kinds of students it serves.
But their biggest objection is that any system that tracks individual students poses huge privacy concerns.
It was the Bush administration that first proposed a "student unit record" data system designed to track college students with these metrics in mind. Higher education groups lobbied Congress to kill the idea, fearful that eventually the government would tie the results to federal funding.
And that's precisely what President Obama wants to do now. The administration insists this is not about politics or the government being heavy-handed. It says it's a consumer issue.
Which raises a question we've taken up before: What should a consumer-friendly, reliable college rating and ranking system look like?
Ben Miller, a researcher with the New America Foundation, has been thinking about that question and has identified several factors that he thinks are good ways to measure a college's value. Among them are: the cost that families pay out of pocket, also known as the net price; how much students have had to borrow after four years; the rate at which borrowers default on their loans; and a school's graduation rate.
But should these criteria apply to all schools? Probably not, says Miller.
There's the example of minority-serving institutions, like historically black colleges, and colleges that enroll lots of low-income kids who need to borrow more money than the average student. "It's foolish to claim that a school's racial, ethnic, socio-economic makeup has no effect on how they're evaluated," Miller says.
On the other hand, he adds, "should colleges be rewarded for recruiting poor and minority students, even if they fall short on other metrics like student debt and graduation rates?"
The goal, after all, is not just to let students in the door but to serve them well so they can enter the job market with a degree that means something, one that will allow them to earn a living wage and buy a car or a home.
Miller and his fellow researcher, Kevin Carey, say schools of course are not going to advertise the fact that their students are getting a bad deal. But there are some things government can do on the regulatory side, like requiring that schools disclose more user-friendly information.
Otherwise, says Carey, choosing a college boils down to "buyer beware."
"I just don't think we can rely on the market by itself for parents and students to make a very difficult set of choices with information that is either hard to get, unavailable or hard to interpret and synthesize," says Carey.
Others say the debate over ratings and rankings, whether it's the private sector or the government carrying them out, cloaks a more serious question: Are Americans losing their trust in higher education as a pathway to a better life?
Jamie Merisotis has spent decades thinking about this as head of the Lumina Foundation, a private nonprofit that promotes college attendance. "Higher education's ability to produce talented and educated individuals in ways that are affordable, accessible and of sufficient quality is being questioned like never before," he says.
The key question, says Merisotis, is this: Can higher ed look beyond its own narrow interests and help build a system that can serve more people better at an affordable price?