Virginia Tech and Montgomery College are well-regarded for what they do. The public research university in Blacksburg, Va., features high-powered engineering and technology programs, while the community college in Maryland draws students from all stages of life into higher education.
But they are not typically known for cracking the top 20 in national college rankings. This week, both schools did just that.
Washington Monthly, a wonkish policy magazine with an annual analysis of what colleges do for the public good, ranked Virginia Tech 19th on its 2017 list of national universities and Montgomery College ninth on its list of best two-year colleges for adult learners.
The Monthly's lists were designed as an offbeat alternative to the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, considered the most prominent in the field. Other publications, such as Money, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, have also jumped into the rankings business in recent years, targeting consumers who are struggling to make sense of a vast higher education market with college costs ranging as high as $70,000 a year.
Too often, the Monthly says, rankings focus on factors such as selectivity, wealth and prestige, and not enough on what taxpayers get in return for tens of billions of dollars spent on student aid.
"What do we get for our investment?" Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Monthly, asked. "These are publicly funded institutions, and the public has a right to know: Are they meeting public goals?"
The Monthly defines those goals as driving social mobility (especially in recruiting and graduating students from low-income families), producing top-level research and encouraging public service. Its formula for national universities includes share of students who qualify for federal Pell grants; participation in Peace Corps and ROTC programs; annual research spending; loan repayment rates; post-college earnings data; and the number of science and engineering doctorates awarded.
Some results in the rankings released Monday were predictable. Stanford University topped the list, followed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All three are perennially in the U.S. News' top 10.
Some were less predictable. Georgetown University ranked fifth under the Monthly formula and Virginia Tech 19th. Last fall, U.S. News ranked Georgetown 20th and Tech 74th.
Virginia Tech landed just behind the University of Florida (18th) and just ahead of the University of California at Irvine (20th). It also beat the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (23rd), Cornell (32nd) and the University of Virginia (36th).
Thanassis Rikakis, provost of Virginia Tech, said Thursday he had been unaware of the ranking until an inquiry from The Washington Post. He sought to play down its significance. "Different institutions are good at different things," he said. "The idea is not one size fits all."
But he said the Monthly formula plays to Virginia Tech's strengths. Founded in 1872 as a land-grant school, the 33,000-student university has always been devoted to a public mission, Rikakis said. "We care about research that has societal impact," he said. "We care about our students putting the social good above other things." In the future, Rikakis said, he wants Virginia Tech to become more economically diverse. About 16 percent of its undergraduates qualify for Pell grants. He said that share should be "way higher."
On the Monthly's two-year college list, which is something of a rarity in rankings, factors measured include tuition and fees, the strength of transfer policies, the share of students over age 25, average post-college earnings, and quality of services for adult students.
The top-ranked schools were Weber State University in Utah and Utah Valley University, in that order. Both are four-year schools with a high number of two-year students. Foothill College in California ranked third. Howard Community College in Maryland ranked seventh, the second year in a row it made the top 10. Montgomery College ranked ninth. Last year, it did not make the top 100.
"It's nice to be on the map," said George Payne, a vice president and provost at Montgomery College. Publicity always helps for a sector of higher education long overshadowed.
"There is an untold story about your local community college," he said. "They're affordable, practical and convenient."
Based in Rockville, the college has about 23,900 undergraduates and many thousands more students who are taking classes but not seeking degrees. The average age for credit-seeking students is about 25 or 26, Payne said, and more than 12 percent of all students are 50 or older.
"Many have degrees already, and they're coming back for a wide variety of reasons," he said. "The idea of a single dose of education for one's lifetime is clearly gone."