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Growing Challenge to 'U.S. News'

May 18, 2007

In the two weeks since 12 college presidents started a challenge to the way U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges, the movement has gained numbers and may also be expanding beyond its base. At least 15 other colleges have now signed on, which organizers say is a major step forward because many had not expected much more movement until members of the Annapolis Group -- which includes hundreds of liberal arts colleges -- gather for a meeting next month where the topic is to be discussed.

Significantly, one of the new colleges joining the effort is Philander Smith College, whose president has enlisted the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education to send out an appeal urging all historically black colleges to join the campaign. The request going to black colleges will argue that the U.S. News rankings are inherently unfair to historically black colleges.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy and one of the organizers of the move against the rankings, said it was "very encouraging" to see more colleges stepping forward. He said he was especially heartened by the involvement of leaders of black colleges.

One of Thacker's main critiques of the rankings is that they discourage educationally and socially valuable policies, such as admitting and educating students who may have attended poor high schools. Black colleges see that as part of their mission, which is "educationally sound and important," Thacker said, yet they are punished in the rankings for not being wealthier and for not placing more emphasis on SAT scores. "This is about making the admissions process about education."

Thacker acknowledged that the movement still has not made the inroads he hopes to see soon among those who are at the very top of the rankings now. Such institutions "may have more at risk," Thacker said, but he added that some officials at such institutions have said that they remain open to the ideas other presidents are proposing and may join after the meeting of the Annapolis Group.

U.S. News has been insisting that it is not worried about the movement against its rankings. But while Robert Morse, who leads the rankings work, has always been available to answer questions from reporters, he said Thursday that he had to refer all calls to Goodman Media International, a New York City public relations agency. A spokeswoman there first said that it would be "more beneficial to everyone" if she and her colleagues screened questions before U.S. News officials commented, and that Brian Kelly, the editor, would respond to questions. But the spokeswoman later said said that he didn't have time to do so because he was traveling, and that Morse and others at the magazine could not answer questions even though they were not traveling.

The rankings have long been controversial with colleges, many of which argue that they encourage colleges to engage in educationally unsound policies and suggest a false precision about which colleges are "the best." The rankings are also extremely popular with would-be students and their parents -- and plenty of colleges boast about the rankings whenever they have a good year. Even some critics say that some parts of the rankings have encouraged colleges to do important things, such as focusing more on retention rates.

The 12 presidents who released a call for reform this month are not calling for a full-scale boycott of the U.S. News rankings. Rather they want colleges 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 12 colleges participating from the start are: Bethany, Dickinson, Earlham, Lafayette, Marlboro, St. John's (Annapolis), St. John's (Santa Fe), and Wheelock Colleges; and Drew, Heritage, Southwestern, and Trinity (D.C.) Universities.

Thacker said that 13 additional colleges had told him that they were joining, and 2 others told Inside Higher Ed that they were doing so. The additional colleges are: the College of the Southwest; Colorado, Eckerd, McDaniel, Moravian, Northwestern (Minn.), Philander Smith, Shimer, Unity, and Washington & Jefferson Colleges; and Denison, Furman, Missouri Baptist, Naropa and Ohio Wesleyan Universities.

Walter Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith, said he joined the opposition to U.S. News because he read Thacker's critiques of the way admissions has evolved away from education values, and because he thinks the rankings hurt black colleges. The "best" colleges, according to U.S. News, are those that reject large percentages of applicants, admit only those with high SAT scores, and have huge endowments to pay for the very best student services, Kimbrough said. Such a methodology "penalized historically black colleges for our mission," he said.

Philander Smith and other black colleges reach out to students who may have attended poor high schools and who may not score well on standardized tests. These college want to find ways to admit students, not reject them, he said. "Our mission is to provide access to students who don't otherwise have access," he said. If Philander Smith succeeds with such students, and does so without a large endowment, why should a magazine somehow label the college as not being top-notch, he asked. "It's a lot easier for schools that have money."

Kimbrough said he would never change his college's mission to earn U.S. News points, but he said that the rankings hurt. Outside groups that aren't familiar with the mission of historically black colleges think the rankings mean something. Kimbrough said that if rankings judged colleges based on the percentage of Pell Grant eligible students, Philander Smith and other black colleges would best all of those on top of the lists now. "But now people get caught up in the designer school mentality" that U.S. News promotes, he said.

Some of those who haven't joined yet say that they want to wait for the development of alternative measures so that students have a replacement for the rankings. Many of these officials say that they agree with the criticisms that have been offered by those organizing the effort.

John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College, said he agrees with the flaws Thacker and others have identified and sees more problems with the rankings in a time that the Spellings Commission and others are criticizing colleges for being too expensive. Strassburger noted that the rankings reward colleges that have a lot of money and spend a lot of money -- assuming that spending is an indicator of quality. "No incentive to cut costs here, just the opposite" Strassburger said.

He added that the reputational survey that the presidents are urging their colleagues to boycott is particularly flawed. "Very few people, even those voting, could state which two colleges among Amherst, Swarthmore, Bucknell, Williams and Carleton have engineering. But they vote anyway," Strassburger said.

Strassburger's hesitation about joining the movement against U.S. News is that prospective students and their families do feel the need for rankings, especially now that geography and religion don't limit college choices as they once did for many people, and the options may seem daunting to some.

"The rankings create distinctions without differences, while effacing differences of consequence" like whether or not a college offers engineering, he said. But he added that he didn't sign the letter because "I think we need a positive strategy as well as a negative one." He said that he hopes that conversations starting next month "produce a positive strategy" because "coming up with the alternative is the challenge."

 

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