Using the Rankings

Colleges love to complain about U.S. News, but a new survey documents the ways many of them use the magazine's findings.
December 6, 2010

There's a big difference between thinking the U.S. News & World Report college rankings are of dubious value -- and actually refusing to try to use them to an institution's advantage.

That's the conclusion of the second of a series of surveys released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. A special NACAC committee has been conducting the series as part of an effort to study the impact of the U.S. News rankings. More survey results and a final report are expected from the panel next year.

The first survey results, released last month, documented that most college admissions officials and high school counselors doubt both the value of the rankings and the idea that they are truly helping students and their families. The new results show that this skepticism doesn't stop colleges from using the rankings -- both to promote their institutions and to make changes in policies and programs.

Of the 80 percent of colleges that believe their institutions appear "favorably" in the rankings, 71 percent promote their rankings results in marketing materials (although most of those say that they promote the rankings in only a limited way). The findings may demonstrate why it was so hard for the Education Conservancy -- an admissions reform group that has been critical of the rankings -- to get more colleges to pledge to "withdraw" from the rankings system. One of the two commitments colleges were asked to make was to refrain from using U.S. News rankings in marketing materials -- something most colleges clearly are not willing to do.

NACAC surveyed both high school counselors and college admissions officials, and found that both groups spend time talking about the U.S. News ratings with students and families. More than 65 percent of high school counselors report doing so, while half of college admissions officials do. Despite spending time talking about the magazine, only about 16 percent of those surveyed keep a copy of its rankings in their offices for students to consult.

One of the criticisms raised most consistently by rankings skeptics is that colleges adopt policies that may not be educationally sound for the sole purpose of advancing in the rankings. On this topic, the report suggests a widespread belief that such activity is taking place -- but college officials are more willing to say that other institutions are engaged in the practice than to say that they themselves are. Of all those surveyed, 95 percent believe that the U.S. News rankings "put pressure on institutions to invest in strategies and practices primarily for the purpose of maintaining or strengthening position in the rankings," either consistently or sometimes.

High school counselors are more likely than college officials to believe that this takes place consistently, 64 percent vs. 47 percent.

Asked about their own institutions, however, 8 percent of colleges reported that they consistently “make programmatic changes at least in part because of their influence on the rankings," while 38 percent said that this is the case periodically.

The survey also allowed the admissions officers to describe exactly how they see the rankings influence college policies, and one of the common answers concerned actions that may benefit students, with survey respondents noting that some parts of the U.S. News methodology are "student-centered" and so encourage colleges, for example, to bring down class size or to focus more attention on retention.

But many respondents also cited other impacts.

One set of comments, the report on the survey says, focused on "manipulating numbers," particularly admission rates and yield rates (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) through shifts in policies on early decision, admitting some applicants very early in the process, and other strategies. Many respondents also noted that the rankings result in more "outside pressure," defining "outside" as meaning outside the admissions office. "Members commonly reported being pressured by their institutions’ presidents, trustees, and faculty to adopt strategies that would increase their rank," the report says.


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