Reed Students Challenge ‘U.S. News,’ and Magazine Challenges Some Colleges

Is the magazine punishing a college for refusing to participate? There's no question that Berkeley and Johnson and Wales are being punished, but for a different reason.

July 29, 2019

Three Reed College undergraduates have challenged the system used by U.S. News & World Report to rank colleges -- at the same time as the magazine has challenged the accuracy of five colleges' rankings.

The story of the Reed students has to do with the college's decision, in 1995, not to cooperate with U.S. News. The college provides all publicly available data but beyond that does nothing to help U.S. News. This decision forces U.S. News to consider where Reed, a well-respected liberal arts college, would appear in the rankings if it did participate.

Consider the story in Reed Magazine. Three undergraduates -- Bailee Cruger, Huaying Qiu and Wenxin Du -- in a statistics class examined how U.S. News treats Reeds and the few other colleges that completely abstain from the rankings.

They determined that if U.S. News followed it own formula, Reed would rank No. 36, not No. 90.

So they reverse engineered the U.S. News formula, and they determined that U.S. News relies on the federal IPEDS data to punish Reed for skipping the rankings by giving it a low ranking.

Robert Morse, the rankings czar at U.S. News, told Inside Higher Ed the Reed students have it wrong.

"We appreciate the work the students at Reed have done for their statistics class, but this story is inaccurate on two premises. First, it is not possible to reverse engineer the Best Colleges rankings using only IPEDS data. Second, it is false to suggest we punish schools that don’t participate in our surveys."

At the same time, he said, U.S. News is changing its system for evaluating colleges like Reed that don't cooperate. He said that U.S. News would be using more than the IPEDS data.

The students are not advocating that Reed play the rankings game.

Qiu told the alumni magazine, “I like Reed because I like the professors here -- not because of their Ph.D. degrees, but their personalities, styles of teaching, etc. I like the Sakura trees in Elliot Circle and the restaurants in Portland; I like my classmates. I can come up with dozens of other reasons why I like Reed, but you get the idea. How you like your school eventually comes down to these very personal things rather than numbers and these unmeasurable human feelings would be included in the error term. When the error term has the dominating effect, you know you won't have a good model. So, why should we take a relatively trivial variable, USN rankings, seriously?”

Rankings -- Certification Required

U.S. News last week removed five colleges from what is left (only a few weeks) of the current rankings year. The mistakes for Mars Hill College, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Scripps College were relatively minor.

But it determined that errors from two colleges -- Johnson and Wales University and the University of California, Berkeley -- were more significant. As a result, the leaders of those campuses have been told they must certify the accuracy of data submitted for rankings for the next three years.

According to U.S. News, Johnson and Wales recently reported to the magazine "that for many years the school had been overreporting its financial resource expenditures budget for its Providence campus. The school had been reporting financial expenditures data for all Johnson and Wales campuses to U.S. News instead of just for the Providence campus. The school told U.S. News that for every $100 of financial resources expenditures it had reported, it should have been around $62."

Lisa Pelosi, vice president for communications and government relations at Johnson and Wales, responded: "As noted, the university was reporting certain data for our multicampus system, not just for our Providence campus. We will make that change to comply with U.S. News. The letter also asked that JWU chancellor certify what is sent to U.S. News. That also will be done."

U.S. News reported that Berkeley said it has been counting pledges as alumni gifts. Removing pledges changed the rate for alumni giving from 11.6 percent to 7.9 percent.

UPDATE: A Berkeley spokesman replied, “UC Berkeley recently discovered an issue with the reporting of its alumni giving rate to U.S. News for the purposes of institutional ranking. As soon as we were aware of the matter, we reported it to U.S. News and provided corrected data. From our research it appears that beginning in 2014 U.S. News required universities to report only cash donations (rather than cash donations plus multiyear pledges) as submitted to the nationally recognized Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) Survey. The then-new change in methodology was apparently overlooked, as we continued using the previously existing U.S. News reporting guidelines. We regret the oversight and look forward to working with U.S. News regarding any additional steps that need to be taken.”


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