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More Momentum Against 'U.S. News'

June 20, 2007

In the wake of meetings this week of the Annapolis Group -- an organization of liberal arts colleges -- critics of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are expecting a significant increase in the number of institutions where presidents pledge not to participate in the "reputational" portion of the rankings or to use scores in their own promotional materials.

A majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting said that they did not intend to participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings in the future. Some of those presidents may have previously endorsed the movement, so the exact increase is uncertain as Annapolis Group leaders said that the expected individual presidents to announce their decisions.

At the same time, the Annapolis Group formally endorsed the idea of working with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges to create "an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for students and their families to use in the college search process." The idea is to create online information with "easily accessible, comprehensive and quantifiable data."

The endorsement of this alternative approach is important to many of the presidents considering the idea of distancing themselves and their institutions from U.S. News. Many who find the U.S. News rankings dubious have said that they didn't like the idea of colleges moving away from the magazine without providing another source of information for prospective students and their families. Some have said that without some alternative in the wings, they didn't feel they could sign on to the campaign against U.S. News.

The effort to create a new online comparison is not starting from scratch. NAICU has been working for months on creating a voluntary Web site that would mix comparable data with places for colleges to provide some additional information about themselves. The idea is not to rank colleges, but to provide basic information on costs, the availability of aid, graduation rates, academic programs and so forth -- information that is currently easy for many students and families to get from U.S. News.

The private college group is hoping to begin its site in some form as early as this fall. Its effort was not a response to U.S. News, but to the Spellings Commission, which has called for more "transparency" of information about what students can expect in colleges.

Presidents at the Annapolis Group meeting -- the largest turnout ever, because of the topic -- said that they view the magazine's rankings as encouraging the wrong behaviors by colleges, while sharing information can encourage the right values.

"The presidents agree that prospective students must have accurate information about colleges, and there is no single measure of educational excellence," said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College, via e-mail. "We would like to see the rankings improved, and we should provide our own more detailed information. I hope that any rankings or templates of data will drive us to compete on the quality of education, access and citizenship, not just how many students we reject or how much money we spend."

U.S. News, which has in the past questioned the motives of colleges involved in the boycott movement, was considerably mellower on Tuesday. Brian Kelly, the top editor, issued a statement that said: "We at U.S. News appreciate the continued support of college and university presidents -- including the Annapolis Group members -- in the rankings process. We applaud any initiative in the higher education community -- whether an academic institution, a government agency or news organization such as ourselves -- to improve and expand accountability measures that help consumers make important decisions."

He went on to say that the magazine welcomed ideas about "refining and improving" the rankings so that they could provide "consumers with factual, accurate, easy-to-navigate information that will help them with a hugely important life choice."

The movement to boycott U.S. News has grown amid anger at how the magazine has treated some colleges, most notably Sarah Lawrence College, whose president revealed that the magazine said it would use its own data to create an SAT average for the college, even though Sarah Lawrence no longer collects SAT scores. But of late, the magazine seems to be stressing its openness. Robert Morse, who runs the rankings and has long appeared at college meetings to explain and defend them, recently started a blog to provide more information about the methodology and philosophy behind them.

U.S. News rankings have angered colleges for years -- at least when they aren't boasting about their scores. The current movement against the rankings kicked off in May, with the release of a letter by 12 college presidents, urging their colleges to stop participating in the "reputational" survey -- in which presidents rank colleges based on what information they have (or out of complete ignorance) -- and to stop citing U.S. News rankings in their promotional material. The letter was coordinated by Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, which works to make the admissions process more focused on education as opposed to competition and prestige.

Chris Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, and outgoing chair of the Annapolis Group, said Tuesday that he was pleased with the intense interest shown by presidents and deans in tackling the rankings. Nelson was one of the original 12 presidents who signed.

He said that presidents are energized about the issue because they realize "the lack of any evidence that the information collected has anything" to do with educational quality.

MaryAnn Baenninger, president of the College of Saint Benedict, said she emerged from the meeting in Annapolis believing she should not participate with U.S. News in the future. "I firmly believe that this is not the best way to provide information."

Thacker said in an interview that he believed that the movement against the rankings had "a real sense of forward motion" and that he felt that many presidents arrived at the meeting "interested and willing to consider the idea, but not committed," and that he believed many of them left much more inclined to move away from the rankings.

Frances Lucas of Millsaps College is one of those presidents. She said Tuesday that she felt she needed to discuss the issue with her board, but that she would recommend a move away from U.S. News. Lucas acknowledged that the magazine can in some ways help a college like hers -- well respected by those who know it, with plenty of good statistics about its performance, but not huge national name recognition. "We've gotten some visibility that has helped us," she said, adding that her board members cared about the rankings.

Lucas said that as she has thought about it more, and heard the discussion in Annapolis, she became convinced that the U.S. News rankings were doing damage to individual institutions and higher education as a whole. Because U.S. News rewards colleges that attract students with high SAT scores and colleges that reject lots of applicants, colleges are "trying to purchase the academically meritorious students," offering merit scholarships to students who might not need the aid.

"I don't know a single college president" who gives merit aid who wouldn't shift more money to low-income students "if rankings weren't in play," Lucas said.

Thacker said he went into the Annapolis meeting with 37 college presidents who had signed the letter against the rankings. While the initial group was dominated by liberal arts colleges like those in the Annapolis Group, he has since gained support from public universities as well, such as Augusta State and San Francisco State Universities and the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Thacker said that he expected to pick up an additional 30-40 backers fairly quickly now. In addition, he has been asked to resend the original letter to hundreds of presidents, updating them on the progress since the initial letter.

Lucas said that Millsaps is already taking one important step. Until recently, one of the college's specific goals in its strategic plan was to be included in the top 50 liberal arts colleges list compiled by U.S. News. While Lucas stressed that the college's ambitions remain high, she said that the board recently agreed not to measure success by the rankings. "That's a victory for students," she said.

 

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