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Ball State president Geoffrey Mearns, at front and on the right, leading a commencement procession this past May. Photo Courtesy of Anthony Romano/Ball State University

Ball State president Geoffrey Mearns, at front and on the right, leading a commencement procession this past May. Photo Courtesy of Anthony Romano/Ball State University

What is happening in the ‘Middletown’ of Muncie, and why it matters.

College rankings have become one more unavoidable nuisance of modern life. They were popularized in the 1980s by the magazine US News & World Report. Now, as the news-magazine business has nearly evaporated, rankings activity is all that keeps the US News company going.

The argument in favor of rankings, apart from their commercial advantages for the publications, is that they would supposedly give students and parents “more information” about colleges to consider. In reality, they brought out the worst rather than the best in all participants in the college-admission process: students, families, admissions offices, institutions, the press.

—For families and students, they added one more needless layer of anxiety to the already needlessly stressful process of finding the “right” school.

Worse, they added a spurious level of precision, through the idea that, say, West Point was in any meaningful way “better” or “worse” than, say, Whitman College in rural Washington, or Arizona State, or Juilliard, or Purdue.

—For institutions, they encouraged cooking-the-books tricks with numbers, to help themselves move a few notches up or down the charts. This kind of chicanery has recently extended to Columbia. It’s gone on every year, for decades. How do I know this? For two years I was the editor of US News, and among the reasons I lasted only two years was a showdown with the owner about cleaning up this system.

Worse, especially in the early decades of the US News rankings, they reinforced and rewarded pure privilege. Early rankings were based on endowment size, and alumni giving, and “reputation,” and other indicators of “having been born on third base” and starting out ahead.

—For admissions officers, they encouraged ramping up the applicant pool—so that the school could reject a higher share of applicants, and therefore seem more “selective” and desirable. I wrote a big Atlantic story about this more than 20 years ago.

—For the press, they directed attention to something that doesn’t matter, whether centuries-old schools were supposedly moving “up” or “down” year by year, rather than realities of how they worked and whom they helped.

I could go on. Instead I’ll point you to the canonical takedown of the ranking system: This was by Nicholas Thompson — then a young editor at The Washington Monthly (which I’ll call “The Monthly”), now the CEO of The Atlantic, and a friend of mine through that time – in The Monthly more than 20 years ago. It is here. And in the latest issue of The Monthly, its editor-in-chief Paul Glastris tells more of the story. I also wrote about the rankings racket on Substack last year.

Here is where this all leads. Rankings, for all their drawbacks, simply aren’t going away. They’re too important a business. Think of them as a more consequential version of the “1-877-Kars4Kids” ads. They drive us crazy, but we’re stuck with them.

So the only way to blunt their effect is, counter-intuitively, to have more of them. (I’m talking about the rankings, not the ads.) A range of rating and ranking systems dilutes the power of any one system of measurement. It comes closer to reflecting the range of factors that make schools “good” or “bad.” And it allows emphasis on behavior that adds more to individual opportunity and public welfare than endowment level or applicant-rejection rates.

That is the approach The Monthly has pioneered for more than 15 years. It has introduced and improved ranking systems that assess colleges not on the advantages they start with, but on the opportunities they create—for students, for communities, for the country and the world.

You can read more about this approach in the articles linked above, and in the large selection of articles in The Monthly’s new 2022 edition. They’re all here, with a great overview and introduction by Kevin Carey.

Two of the articles are by Deb Fallows and by me. They’re both set in Muncie, Indiana, site of the famed Middletown book nearly a century ago, and now the home of Ball State University. And they are about the kinds of local-level innovation that can transform a community but unfortunately goes almost unnoticed by national media, with consequences I describe here.

Soon we will post both Monthly articles in full on this site. For now, please check out the full range of important Monthly offerings, and be aware of the important ways powerful institutions can help their communities.