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The Washington Monthly College Guide

Other guides ask what colleges can do for you.
We ask what are colleges doing for the country.

This month, U.S. News & World Report releases its annual rankings of colleges. First published in 1983, the guide has become its own mini-event: College presidents, education reporters, alumni, parents, and high school juniors alike all scramble to get their hands on the rankings. Its release is followed by weeks of gloating from the top-ranked schools and grumbling from those schools that dropped a slot (or 14) from the previous year. Inspired by the popularity, other guides—from Princeton Review to Peterson’s to Kaplan—have rushed to compete. College rankings are now so influential that universities and higher-education journals hold regular chin-stroking sessions about whether the numbers-game has too much influence over the way schools behave. New York University’s Vice President John Beckman sniffed to the Harvard Crimson this spring that the rankings “are a device to sell magazines that feed on an American fixation with lists,” which is precisely what institutions say when they’re trying to duck accountability.
There’s a good reason for the American fixation with rankings—if done correctly, they can help tell us what’s working and what’s not. Of course universities ought to be judged. The key is judging the right things.

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