Shimer College graduation, spring 2010 Credit: Shimer College

It’s been a tough three years since Susan Henking was installed as president of Shimer College, the tiny Great Books school embedded on high-tech IIT’s Bronzeville campus.

Henking restored stability in the wake of an attempted right-wing takeover of the board of trustees that would have changed the fiercely independent character of the place. But since then enrollment has dropped and money’s been scarce. There’s an ongoing struggle to secure a future for the idiosyncratic 162-year-old school.

No day of that struggle has been worse than the one last August when Shimer—proudly and intensely intellectual—turned up at the top of a prominent list of the 20 worst colleges in America.

The list was published by Washington Monthly as part of its annual college rankings. One of four “worst college” rosters compiled for the magazine by Ben Miller, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, it focused on cost and graduation rates for low-income and minority students.

On another of Miller’s lists—this one giving equal weight to student cost, debt, loan defaults, and graduation rates—Shimer was ranked the 16th worst out of 20.

Neither assessment of the purposely small school—now at 77 students and 12 faculty—went down well with Shimer students and alumni. A slew of online comments protested that Shimer, which enrolls promising students without ACT scores or high school diplomas, eschews textbooks and lectures for Socratic-discussion-based discovery, and demands vigorous engagement with an evolving list of primary texts, is unique and valuable.

So how had it landed at the top of the worst?

Start with the fact that higher ed is seriously fucked-up. According to a recent analysis by Bloomberg, tuition has risen more than 1,000 percent in less than 40 years. Students have taken on more than a trillion dollars in tuition debt but are graduating into a still-shrunken job market and having trouble finding work. Others leave college with crippling debt but no degree.

The Obama administration is trying to address this situation by instituting a federal rating system for colleges that’ll assess their performance on basic criteria like cost and graduation rates, and might eventually affect their share of federal funding, which now runs to more than $150 billion annually. The Department of Education is collecting public comment on a “framework” for a system it plans to institute next fall, but as Washington Monthly also reports, its opponents include a well-oiled higher-ed lobby and many Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress.

Washington Monthly’s rankings of the country’s worst higher-ed institutions put Shimer College at the top of one list, 16th out of 20 on another.

The magazine has been compiling lists of the best colleges and universities in America since 2005, evaluating schools not on “expense, luxury, and exclusivity” but on what they’re “doing for the country,” as measured by social mobility, research, and public service. The results are very different from, say, U.S. News and World Report‘s: Northwestern, for example, ranked number 13 by U.S. News, failed to break the top 100 on Washington Monthly‘s 2014 ranking of national universities.

Some of the results on Miller’s “worst” lists are unsurprising. Private for-profit institutions dominate all four (DeVry University, e.g., shows up on three of them). Private nonprofits are also prevalent. And there’s a high proportion of art schools (Columbia College makes an appearance, as does the International Academy of Design and Technology). With only two exceptions, public colleges are absent.

But Shimer?

Henking protests that Miller (who didn’t respond to requests for comment) “used publicly available data, but did not contextualize it. It doesn’t represent who we are.” His graduation data, for example, appear to be drawn from the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which counts only first-time, full-time college students.

“That doesn’t show anything about the majority of Shimer students,” Henking says. “Since most of them already have had some college experience when they come to us, they’re not showing up.” And that holds for the school’s low-income and minority students, most of whom “are not first-time college people.”

This points to a larger problem, says Henking. “If somebody goes to another college for a year, and comes to Shimer . . . and graduates in four years, that person will neither show up on Shimer’s data nor on the data for the other college. That person’s never counted. This is part of the controversy about ratings, because the vast majority of the 17 million people who go to college these days don’t get all their credits from the same institution. So the push to evaluate us all on things like graduation rate, while it’s a reasonable goal, isn’t really counting who moves through a place.”

Henking says she’s invited Miller to come see Shimer for himself, and thinks he might take her up on it this month. In the meantime, another writer did visit. Guardian reporter Jon Ronson, who’d taken note of the passionate defense of Shimer online, wondered what the truth was about the place, and came to investigate. Last month he published a story describing that visit—the austere and minimal quarters, the probing discussions, the noticeable lack of party atmosphere. He talks with a student who was homeless before she enrolled, who loved the idea of “reading books all day for credit,” and another who came because he struck up a conversation with Henking in an Amtrak station when he was 15 and she noticed he was reading Plato. In the end, Ronson finds himself agreeing with a professor that if Shimer survives, “it could be the future.”

Agreeing, he writes, and hoping it’s not wishful thinking.

Since that story appeared, a board member tells me, an odd thing’s happened. Shimer’s heard from a lot of prospective students who think this worst of all colleges might be the very best place for them.