Watered Down Call for Rankings Reform

Presidents of top liberal arts colleges criticize ratings but refrain from joint pledge others made to stop filling out "reputational" survey.
September 10, 2007

A new statement on college rankings appeared Friday afternoon -- signed by 19 presidents of prestigious liberal arts colleges. While the statement criticizes the "inevitable biases" of any rankings and pledges the colleges not to use rankings in promotional material, it falls short of the pledges and the rhetoric of a letter distributed in May by the Education Conservancy and signed by another group of presidents.

Specifically, the new letter does not contain the promise in the May letter of presidents not to participate in the "reputational" survey of the U.S. News & World Report rankings -- the part of the magazine's methodology with the greatest weight, but which has been derided by educators as particularly unfair and inaccurate.

If you want to compare the impact of the two statements, consider the reactions of U.S. News to them. When the May statement was released, the top editor of U.S. News threatened to find other educators to replace the presidents for the "reputational" survey and said that the letter "is further evidence that some schools don’t want to be held accountable." When Robert Morse, who runs the rankings operation, was reached late Friday to comment on the latest statement, he said "we're happy we're still going to get their data" and "it's fine with us" if these colleges don't boast about how they do. Morse didn't offer a single criticism of the statement.

The reason the new statement is particularly important is that it is from the presidents many educators have been waiting to hear from: those at the very top of the U.S. News hierarchy. The 19 presidents are with one exception from institutions ranked in the top 25 of liberal arts colleges by the magazine, and these 19 include the institutions that are always in competition for the top slot, Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges. While the colleges that are taking a harder line against U.S. News have plenty of educational distinctions, the fact that they aren't at the top of the rankings heap may have hurt their chances of getting support.

One president who signed the new letter and asked not to be identified said: "You are known by the company you keep," so when the new letter started circulating and it included institutions "we associate with most closely, who we see as our closest peers and in some sense competitors," and the earlier letter wasn't signed by such institutions, the logic favored the new letter.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, said, "I am pleased that this group of presidents is moving forward to address the pernicious public effects of commercial rankings," and called the letter "a first step" toward reform. But he added: "Certainly, I believe this statement could have gone further in addressing the educational needs of students and families -- and the high level of public cynicism about higher education -- but I am an education activist."

The new letter says several things. It says that the colleges will stop using the rankings in any college publications "since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number." It says that the colleges will make public on their Web sites all of the data that they turn over to U.S. News and others that do rankings, so prospective students and their families can have access to the information without going to the rankings. And the letter pledges further work to improve the process.

"As for rankings, we recognize that no degree of protest may make them soon disappear, and hope, therefore, that further discussion will help shape them in ways that will press us to move in ever more socially and educationally useful directions," the letter says.

It was signed by the presidents of Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Carleton, Colby, Grinnell, Hamilton, Haverford, Middlebury, Pomona, Swarthmore, Trinity (Conn.), Vassar, Wellesley and Williams Colleges; and of Colgate, Washington and Lee, and Wesleyan Universities.

Russell Osgood, Grinnell's president, saw several motivations for the new letter. "All of us are suspicious of a ranking metric that would try to say this college is the best," he said. Not only is that approach overly simplistic, but he said that he thinks many of the formulas used "tend to favor those of us with very large endowments," adding that "I don't think dollars spent is a simple way to effectively measure educational value."

Then there is public relations and its impact. "All of us agree that part of the problem is that some or all of us have been playing up the various rankings, particularly if we do well," Osgood said. So that led to the commitment to stop doing so.

At the same time, Osgood said that some rankings aren't bad and that the proliferation of guides has had some positive impact. "For parents and prospective students, lots of information is better than less information, and while all of us don't like one ranking or another ranking, we are so much better off than higher education was 30 or 40 years ago, when people did not have the information we have now."

Of the new letter, he said that "this letter is an effort to get beyond the boycott talk and talk about the fundamental things."

Osgood also does not object to the "reputational" survey, which college presidents fill out about similar institutions. He skips those institutions he doesn't know. But Osgood said that there are institutions he knows very well that might be as well known or as wealthy as others, but that provide a great education. He cited Beloit College as one such place and said that he's happy to provide it with some help by giving it high marks when U.S. News sends around its survey.

Not all presidents who signed the new statement plan to continue with the "reputational" survey. Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University, filled it out last year, his first in office. He doesn't plan to do so again. "I do think that the methodology is just too loose, without enough firm criteria on which I can make a judgment," he said.

He described the decision to sign the new letter as a balancing act. "There was hesitancy on the part of some colleges and universities, and I would include myself, with appearing to criticize the rankings because we weren't ranked as well as we might like," he said. "It could have been misconstrued as colleges upset with the rankings because of their own place in the rankings."

At the same time, he said that he and others realized that many people were wondering when "the top 25 colleges were going to say anything" and that since "many of us have some of the same concerns" as expressed in the first letter, "we didn't want our silence to be misread as a feeling that we think rankings are OK."

At least one president who signed the letter released Friday might still sign the Education Conservancy letter. William D. Adams, president of Colby College, said he was "very sympathetic" to the Education Conservancy approach. The new letter was "a step in the right direction," he said, but Adams added that "I wish it had been closer to one of the central provisions of the Education Conservancy letter," namely the pledge on not filling out the "reputational" survey.

Adams said that he didn't feel he could take a stand on the Education Conservancy letter or the survey until he can discuss the issues with his board, which he plans to do at a meeting next month. "This isn't just a personal decision. It's an institutional decision," he said.

While some of his board members have "very strong, very critical feelings" about rankings, Adams said that trustees pay attention to them. And he said that presidents at other institutions, "if they are being honest," will say that their board members do so.

Adams said he didn't know which way his board would go. But while most educators are "deeply skeptical of rankings," many trustees are not. "I think these are much more accustomed to these kinds of rankings, which are very common on certain corporate settings."

Adams added that even in its more limited form, the letter issued Friday took a "very important" position against publicizing rankings results -- and should have credibility since the letter comes from institutions that do well.

Some presidents whose institutions are highly ranked by U.S. News turned down requests that they join either letter. Pamela Gann, president of Claremont McKenna College, said that she agrees with parts of both statements against rankings, and that her college makes only "very limited use" of rankings. Other reasons, however, led her to not sign either letter.

Via e-mail, she said: "Claremont McKenna College is very committed to free markets and individual choice; consequently, our signing these types of restrictive letters is not within the spirit of Claremont McKenna College. For-profit publications and rankings are what they are in our free-market economy, with open competition enhanced through freedom of speech and expression of ideas."

The letter circulated by the Education Conservancy now has 64 college presidents on board. Douglas C. Bennett, the president of Earlham College, one of the organizers of that effort, said he was "dismayed" that the presidents signing Friday's statement were unwilling to stay out of the "reputational" survey.

"If you can find a college president who thinks the approach of U.S. News yields valid indication of educational quality, I hope they will explain it and say why that is their view," Bennett said. "And if they don't believe that, I don't know why anyone would participate actively and filling out the survey is actively participation."

Bennett stressed, however, that those who signed the Education Conservancy pledge did so because "it was the right thing to do" and not because of "who might follow." Those committed to the Education Conservancy approach will continue to do so, he said.

Another of the original organizers of that effort -- Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University, in Washington -- had mixed feelings about the statement issued Friday. She said she was "very encouraged that they say very clearly that rankings contribute to a false sense of what constitutes educational success," adding that the two groups of presidents are "on the same page about the need to provide meaningful consumer data that is readily accessible to prospective students and families, and we absolutely need to move ahead with doing that on our respective Web sites."

But McGuire was critical of the colleges for not doing more and for seeming to be worried about being seen as boycotting the rankings.

"As for this latest group of institutions, my only thought is that for them to say, on the one hand, that the rankings mislead the public on educational quality, but on the other hand, we'll keep participating in the hope of persuading the publications to change, seems inconsistent at best," McGuire said.

As for fear of boycotting the survey in which presidents rank institutions, she said: "I'm not sure who started using the term 'boycott' for the principled decision among some of us to refuse to fill out a survey that is a disgraceful excuse for an academic assessment of institutional quality. I'm not sure that 'boycott' is the right word, but if that's what some think it is, so what? Commercial businesses are more likely to understand that tactic than polite academic rhetoric."

Commercial interests may, however, be pushing U.S. News toward emphasizing rankings (and not just of colleges). The New York Post's media column reported Friday that U.S. News plans to add a new "best of" cover story about once a month, since the magazine's rankings of colleges, graduate schools and hospitals are "virtually the only moneymaking issues" for the magazine. Many of the new issues will be about consumer goods, but later this month, U.S. News will debut rankings of historically black colleges.


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