The Washington Monthly College Rankings: The Origin Story.

AuthorGlastris, Paul
PositionEditor's Note

The journalists James and Deborah Fallows are best known these days for their hit book and HBO documentary Our Towns, a journey-by-small-plane look at the resilience and renewal of unheralded communities across America. I've known them for almost four decades as colleagues, mentors, and friends, and I am delighted to publish features by each of them in our annual college guide and rankings issue. But behind their two stories and our long friendship is another story--one that explains how the Washington Monthly came to rank colleges in the first place and what we aim to do next.

Jim and Deb were writing for The Atlantic and contributing pieces to this magazine in the mid-1980s when I joined the Monthly as a young editor--the same job Jim had held a decade earlier. In 1996, when I was working as a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, Jim took over as editor. His and Deb's home in Northwest D.C. became an after-hours haven for a group of us trying to figure out how to reinvent the newsmagazine.

One of the subjects of those deliberations was what to do about U.S. News's annual college rankings. Though the rankings were influential in the higher education world and produced a river of revenue for the magazine, their underlying metrics raised eyebrows within and outside the organization. Jim decided to commission a study for internal use by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). The study concluded that the ways in which U.S. News weighted and combined its various measures into one overall rating lacked "any defensible empirical or theoretical basis."

Raising doubts about the publication's most valuable franchise was probably not the best way for Jim to endear himself to its owner, the real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman--and in the summer of 1998, Mort fired him. I quit right after that and went to work as a White House speechwriter (another job Jim had previously held). In 2000, the internal NORC report fell into the hands (who can say how?) of another young Washington Monthly editor, Nick Thompson, who wrote a pioneering takedown of the U.S. News rankings.

After my White House stint, I took over from Charlie Peters as editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, and the magazine continued to hammer away at the flaws in the U.S. News lists. Then, in 2005, we published the first of what would become our annual alternative college guide. Where U.S. News rewards colleges for their wealth, prestige, and exclusivity, thereby aggravating...

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