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Battle Lines on 'U.S. News'

May 7, 2007

After years of complaints and months of talk about challenging the role of U.S. News & World Report in ranking colleges, 12 college presidents have come forward with a call to arms. In a letter being sent to hundreds of liberal arts college presidents, the 12 call for their colleagues to stop filling out the survey of institutional reputations that makes up 25 percent of scores in the rankings -- the largest single factor in the formula. The presidents also call for colleagues to pledge not to use U.S. News rankings in promotional materials.

The effort is about focusing public discussion on the failings of rankings by highlighting the reputational survey, "the most offensive part" of the U.S. News rankings, said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University in Washington and one of the 12. McGuire said that she stopped filling out the survey years ago. "I looked at it one year and I said, 'What the hell am I doing?' There are a couple [of colleges] I know a lot about, because I chaired an accreditation team or for some other reason," but for most institutions, she said she would have had to go on second hand reports and rumors.

"Reputation can be another word for gossip," she said. "This is not a survey that has integrity based on objective data," she said. "We are saying that we will not engage in slandering each other's institutions or inflating each other."

In an interview Sunday, the top editor at U.S. News made it clear that the magazine has no intention of changing the rankings as a result of the call for a boycott.

"If liberal arts college presidents don't participate, we'll find other people to survey," said Brian Kelly, the editor, who added that many college presidents tell him that they like the reputational survey because it allows rankings to reflect "the intangibles" that aren't reflected in statistics on such factors as graduation rates, alumni giving, and admissions competitiveness.

"To me, this is further evidence that some schools don't want to be held accountable," Kelly said.

In addition to McGuire, the letter (in which the presidents pledge to start doing what they are urging their colleagues to do) was signed by: Douglas C. Bennett of Earlham College, William G. Durden of Dickinson College, Jackie Jenkins-Scott of Wheelock College, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell of Marlboro College, Christopher Nelson of St. John’s College (Annapolis), Michael Peters of St. John’s College (Santa Fe), Kathleen Ross of Heritage University, Jake Schrum of Southwestern University, G. T. (Buck) Smith of Bethany College, Robert Weisbuch of Drew University, and Daniel H. Weiss of Lafayette College.

Whether the boycott will take off is unclear. Supporters of the boycott noted that while complaints about flaws in the U.S. News rankings are widespread, few institutions have until now taken a strong public stand on the issue (Reed College being the most notable exception). Some organizers of the boycott had hoped to attract support from the presidents of institutions that top the U.S. News list of liberal arts college presidents -- and those names were absent. That doesn't mean, however, that they may not join the movement, or may not already be doing so in some respects.

Williams College tops the rankings this year (a position Williams frequently holds). Via e-mail on Sunday, Morton Owen Schapiro, the president, said that he hadn't decided whether to join the boycott and that he was waiting for a discussion of the issue next month at a meeting of the Annapolis Group, an organization of liberal arts colleges. But even if Williams hasn't been boycotting, Schapiro said he currently checks the "I don't know" box for the "vast majority" of colleges in the reputational survey.

For years, colleges have complained about U.S. News (while many of those same colleges boast about good rankings on years when the magazine blesses them). The complaints have gained momentum this year as part of a broad critique of college admissions that includes concerns over the use of standardized test scores, early admissions, the ability of wealthy families to gain advantage in the admissions system, and suburban hysteria over getting kids into the "right" college. Many critics of various college admissions issues see the U.S. News rankings as having an influence on a range of college policies. For example, many colleges say that they feel a need to pay more attention to SAT scores than they might otherwise, or to attract applicants for the purpose of rejecting them because such moves are favored by the magazine's formula.

Many of the critics are working with the Education Conservancy, whose founder, Lloyd Thacker, released the letter Saturday and who has dubbed U.S. News and other rankings outfits as "the ranksteers." Thacker -- formerly a high school and college counselor -- has been attracting increasing support (and foundation funding) with his calls to reform college admissions and to make the admissions process more focused on education.

Trinity's McGuire said part of her desire to challenge U.S. News is a sense that is it promoting false ideas about college quality. One year, early in her tenure as president, she said that the college was facing a serious financial crisis that could easily have had an impact on the quality of education -- and Trinity came out exceptionally high in some categories. The college is now much better, financially and educationally, McGuire said, yet the magazine considers it not to be doing as well.

She also noted the values that U.S. News imposes on campuses. Trinity has a strong track record in recruiting students from low-income families coming out of poor high schools in the Washington area. Many of these students need remedial work and have low test scores, but after just a year or two of intense work at Trinity, they are sought by and sometimes enroll at institutions like Howard University or the University of Maryland at College Park. So Trinity gets low marks on competitiveness and retention, but to McGuire, it is getting low marks for fulfilling its mission.

Bennett, of Earlham, also said that the ratings are educationally invalid. He said, for example, that alumni giving percentages (another part of the U.S. News formula) don't measure satisfaction with the quality of education, "but how good you are at asking for money."

Regardless of whether the boycott takes off, Bennett said, "this is an issue of professional integrity," in that colleges need to share their doubts about a set of rankings that has gained too much influence. "The rankings are a distraction from the most important issues we face in higher education, which are access and quality," he said.

Kelly, the U.S. News editor, said he agreed that there might be even better ways to evaluate college and new data that might be valuable, and he said that the magazine would continue to refine its methodology. But he said that the letter from the presidents "isn't offering anything new or constructive" and that the U.S. News rankings are "the best means out there to evaluate colleges."

The rankings grow in popularity every year with their intended audience, Kelly said, which is prospective students and their families. "We do not publish the rankings for college presidents," he said.

Kelly said that more than two-thirds of liberal arts college presidents currently respond to the survey and that only 12 have vowed to boycott, something that would not have any impact. If the numbers dropped, he said that the magazine would turn to "other experts" for the survey. And Kelly rejected the idea that presidents can't evaluate other institutions. "We are asking industry experts to analyze their industry," he said. "Many college administrators take the survey very seriously, as should be part of their job. They are evaluating their competitors."

College presidents don't have the right to say that only they can decide how institutions should be evaluated, Kelly said. Many critics of the rankings have said that if the magazine just published the data -- and not the rankings -- they wouldn't have anything to criticize. But Kelly said that such suggestions ignore the role of journalists. "We make judgments all the time. Why did I put George Bush on the cover this week? Do I need a scientific based panel of academic experts to put him on?"

Some of the presidents who signed the letter suggested that U.S. News may have issues beyond journalistic values at stake. " U.S. News is trying to sell magazines. This is a best-seller for them," said Schrum, the president of Southwestern.

Other presidents said that the idea that they are anti-accountability is unfair. McGuire of Trinity noted that her institution makes public full accreditation reports, both institutional and specialized. Earlham publishes reports on the college from a variety of groups -- including U.S. News -- although that section is followed immediately by a critique of the rankings. Schrum said that while he doesn't pay attention to where U.S. News ranks his institution, he cares a lot about being included in the book Colleges That Change Lives, a report he says is based on in-depth analysis of institutions and their strengths.

"What this is about is that we have decided that we are going to take back higher education from the ranking services as much as we can," Schrum said. "This is about the soul of higher education."

Carleton College's president, Robert Oden Jr., said via e-mail that he has a great deal of respect for those organizing the boycott, but does not plan to join. Carleton tends to rank high, but Oden said that the college uses "plenty of modesty" in sharing its successes. Oden said that he questions one of the ideas underlying the rankings -- the crucial importance of determining where to enroll. "One of the messages I convey annually to admitted students is the following: 'Don't agonize in April over your college choice. You are simply not going to make a wrong choice: the country is filled with great colleges, and by the third day on campus of whatever college you choose, you're very likely to say to yourself, 'thank heavens I made the choice I did.'"

So what are the values of rankings? "The rankings clearly are important to a significant portion of our external audiences, and especially to our alumnae and alumni, for whom such rankings offer a third-party assessment of the education they received at Carleton," he said.

And then there's the question of the American psyche. "I think some series of rankings are with us for now and for the future," Oden said. "From the best fly-fishing rivers to the American communities which offer the highest quality of cultural opportunities, we seem as a nation to be given to rankings. Others, and especially those outside the country, find this a lamentable, even deplorable American habit; but, and as I say, this habit has been a defining trait of Americans since well before French and other visitors took it upon themselves to define the American self."

 

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