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 America’s racial and class divides, the Monthly ranks schools based on three very different criteria meant to do the opposite. The first is how well colleges recruit and graduate students of modest means with reasonably priced degrees that lead to decent-paying jobs. The second is their record of producing the scholars and scholarship that drive economic growth and human progress. The third is the degree to which they encourage students to become active members of the democracy through voting and public service.
There is a fourth criterion, however, by which the value of colleges should ideally be judged: their contribution to the economic and civic life of their communities. We all know of examples of this—for instance, how research from Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley gave rise to the Bay Area’s tech economy, or how certain small towns manage to retain jobs and cultural life thanks to the presence of a local college. There are also plenty of examples of the opposite—of universities doing little for their locales, leading to familiar “town and gown” resentments.
It’s hard to quantify how much a college does or doesn’t give back to its community, and harder still to do so in ways that allow colleges to be compared to one another. It’s therefore a phenomenon that can’t be accounted for in rankings but must be documented qualitatively, on a case-by-case basis, by on-the-ground reporting.
The two journalists in America who have probably done the best of this kind of reporting are Jim and Deb Fallows. Fortunately, when we reached out to see if they would write on the subject for us, they enthusiastically agreed to contribute not one but a series of stories for the Monthly over the next year.
In this issue, they focus on one school and city they know well: Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. In his piece, Jim explains how the university, under the leadership of its energetic president, Geoffrey Mearns, accepted responsibility for running the city’s failing public schools. In hers, Deb homes in on how the college’s student newspaper has all but taken over coverage of the schools from the hollowed-out local paper.
The Fallowses believe that something genuinely new is happening in America. As Jim writes, “An under-noticed generation of college leaders is deciding to use their institutions as deliberate instruments of community, civic, and regional advancement.” The aim of these stories is to help turn that trend into a movement.