Washington Monthly's 10 most innovative college presidents

Rankings recognize leaders' focus on diversity, service, research, affordability

In a piece for Washington Monthly, Matt Connolly takes a non-traditional approach to ranking college presidents, naming the "10 most innovative" leaders based on their focus on affordability, research, service, and diversity.  

On Washington Monthly's 'different kind of college ranking,' public colleges are king

College presidents often "accept whatever definition of success their tribe and surrounds tell them," Connolly says, but the most innovative leaders "treat their schools like laboratories," testing new initiatives and "providing potential road maps to success for peer institutions."

Washington Monthly's rankings did not account for branding, selectivity, or endowment growth. Instead they focused on service, research, affordability, and diversity.

Here are the college presidents Washington Monthly says "are changing higher ed for the better … and shaping the future of America's schools."

Mark Becker, Georgia State University

Becker's support of big data has enabled Georgia State to improve low-income, first-generation, and minority student success rates. Despite a cut in state funding, the school essentially eliminated graduation gaps between racial groups and improved the six-year graduation rate from 32% to 53%.

Georgia State uses data modeling to predict students' performance, and a "micro grant" program helps students in financial trouble.

See how Georgia State created a culture where numbers matter

Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College

"No college administrator is working harder than Klawe to bridge the gender gap in tech," Connolly writes.

Klawe revamped the recruiting and retention programs for female students, who are guided toward computer science majors and minors. Introductory courses were redesigned to welcome, not "weed out" enrolled students. Klawe also hired more female faculty members.

Diana Natalicio, University of Texas at El Paso

Under Natalicio, research funding grew from $6 million to $84 million annually. The student body has also grown from 55% Hispanic to 80%.

The key to student success, according to Natalicio, is maintaining low tuition, providing work-study jobs, and making courses available multiple times a year—so that if students miss a semester they do not fall too far behind.

Michael Crow, Arizona State University

Crow oversaw an increased focus on research—tripling funding since 2012—and the growth of the online education program. As enrollments of low-income students have increased, so have graduation rates.

Catharine Bond Hill, Vassar College

Under Hill, the endowment funding for financial aid has risen from $27 million in 2006 to more than $60 million this year, and the percentage of Vassar students receiving financial aid has jumped from 40% to 60%. Additionally, minorities now account for 40% of the student body.

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University

Under LeBlanc, SNHU opened a satellite campus with significantly reduced tuition costs—which has been so success ful that other systems have replicated the model. He also recently announced the introduction of the first fully accredited online bachelor's degree program; Connolly calls it "an attempt to bridge the gap between academic study that most colleges cherish and the vocational training that employers are calling for."

LeBlanc has also served as a senior adviser on affordability, access, and academic programs to U.S. Education Department Undersecretary Ted Mitchell.

Michael Sorrell, Paul Quinn College

The historically black college faced serious enrollment and retention issues when Sorrell took over in 2007.

Sorrell nixed the football program—which would have cost $2 million to save—and turned the field into a farm, which helped address the local food desert problem. Students are paid to manage farm operations, then they sell or donate the crops.  

Students spend two years on campus, then are placed in jobs at Dallas businesses for the last two years of school; half of their paychecks pay for tuition, and they take home the rest. As a result, the average Paul Quinn student takes only $2,300 in loans each year.

John Hitt, University of Central Florida

Hitt has led his school since 1992 and grown it into the second largest institution in the United States, with increasing minority student representation and graduation rates.

Through the DirectConnect program, students who earn their associate degrees from any of five partner colleges are guaranteed admission to UCF. Counseling and additional support help to smooth the transfer process.

Sandy Shugart, Valencia College  

The sole community college leader on the list, Shugart helped create UCF's DirectConnect partner program and has focused on immediately engaging students and helping them chart a course to graduation. Instructors are expected to "make the first minute of the first meeting of the first class a learning minute," rather than waiting for enrollment to shake out over the first two weeks before getting serious about instruction.     

Cheryl Hyman, City Colleges of Chicago

As soon as she took over this seven-school system, Hyman implemented the "Reinvention" program, which focuses on job training and improving the graduation rate. The schools partner with local businesses to develop specialized curricula to fill local needs and equip students with real-world experience.

When she took over in 2010, the graduation rate was 7%; it has more than doubled, and her most recent five-year plan set a goal of 20% by 2018. (Connolly, Washington Monthly, September-October 2015).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague