NYTreports a new player in the lucrative “best colleges” racket: The Atlantic Monthly.

The ranking of top colleges has become a multimillion-dollar industry for magazine and book publishers, fueled by anxious parents looking for guidance and by the institutions themselves, which spend lavishly to raise their standings in such surveys.

But today marks the official entry of a new player. Introducing its “first annual college admissions survey,” The Atlantic Monthly adds its weight to that buckling newsstand shelf with a 40-page package that includes its ranking of the 50 most selective colleges in the nation.

The Atlantic’s findings may surprise and puzzle readers — for instance, U.S. News & World Report considers the University of Chicago No. 13 on its latest survey, while the Atlantic pegs it at No. 39 — and the effort is sure to set off fresh arguments about the value of college rankings.

The magazine’s editors used what they acknowledged was a highly simplistic methodology in selecting its top 50 schools, and even they wonder about the list’s value. But the survey, coming from a 146-year-old magazine that has published such bylines as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gandhi, is already having an impact.


With articles bearing such headlines as “The Selectivity Illusion” and “Calm down!” the magazine’s editors and writers argue that “a school’s selectivity does not necessarily reflect the quality of the education it offers.”


Even officials at colleges that placed far better than the University of Chicago in The Atlantic analysis said they were disheartened that the magazine had chosen to produce a list.

James L. Bock, the dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, which is ranked No. 10 in The Atlantic and No. 3 on the U.S. News list for liberal arts colleges, acknowledged that such bouquets represent “free press for a small school” and “that we’re not going to turn that away.”

But however well-intentioned and thoughtful the articles, Mr. Bock argued, “my fear is that the list will just feed the frenzy.”

A very lucrative frenzy, however.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Yeah, this is a big racket, even for targetting alumni.

    Mrs. Director’s MBA school was listed in the recent WSJ survey. Mine wasn’t for which I got endless grief at the breakfast table (in another survey, MY biz school was ranked and hers wasn’t, so she was just getting revenge).

    48 hours after the WSJ publication her school called, asked if she had seen the suvey, and asked for a donation “so we can do even better next year”.