Very Much Worth Reading: Washington Monthly's 'Real' College Rankings

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In my misspent youth I was for a while the editor of US News & World Report, which was then a weekly news magazine. One of the big challenges was to try do something about US News's annual "Best Colleges" rankings, which were important in a good way to the magazine's business strategy but had become important in a bad and distorting way to the operations of many colleges. Harvard or Caltech might not care about the rankings, but nearly every other institution had to, and their efforts to move up a place or two often did more harm than good to the long-term interests of students and institution alike. In a post two years ago I said more about background of the college-ranking problem and various proposed solutions, with links to other essays and studies.

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It's never been realistic to expect US News or other rankings-producers to solve these problems by giving up on rankings. Rankings are simply too important as a business. Indeed, long after US News has ceased operations as a weekly magazine, it lives on mainly as a rankings agency. ("Best Heart Surgery Hospitals," "Best Law Firms," etc). So the only reasonable way to blunt the effect of one set of rankings is by adding many more. A wide range of rankings would more fully reflect the very wide range of criteria by which a certain school might be the "best" for a certain student. Is Julliard "better" than West Point, and is either "better" than Reed -- or Berkeley or Embry-Riddle or the University of Chicago or Smith or CCNY? They all are different, and the more that outside assessments could reflect that range, the better.

For the past few years, some of the most useful of these additional rankings have come from the Washington Monthly magazine. (Disclosure: that's where I had my first magazine job.) A big theme in its assessments has been an attempt to measure the difference that a school makes. That is, less emphasis on how elite and highly select the students are when admitted, and more on how much they learn once they get there -- and how they use their skills later in life.

The latest Washington Monthly rankings are just out, and they come with a set of excellent articles about how the role of higher education is changing in general. You will not regret spending time with this. Nor even subscribing to the magazine! Seriously, this is worth reading.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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