'U.S. News' Participation Drops

September 13, 2011

Colleges and universities will be giving U.S. News & World Report lots of free publicity today as they boast about their advances in the magazine's annual college rankings. But in one key respect, colleges are becoming notably less helpful to the magazine. Presidents are less likely than in years past to fill out the evaluations that are a key part of the rankings methodology.

This follows a few years of stability or slight gains in participation -- following some declines amid a push by some rankings critics for colleges to boycott the "peer evaluations."

This year the overall participation rate among presidents was 43 percent, down five percentage points in a year. Among liberal arts colleges (many of which have been particularly critical of the U.S. News rankings), the participation rate this year is 44 percent, down 3 percentage points. In recent years, the rankings have done particularly well at attracting participation from "national universities," but that category too saw a drop, with 53 percent participating this year, down 6 percentage points in a year.

Surveys of presidents account for 15 percent of the calculations about top liberal arts colleges and universities and 25 percent for other institutions. But for the top institutions, the magazine also does another survey -- of high school guidance counselors -- which accounts for 7.5 percent of the ranking. And this survey's participation rate, never high, is also falling. Last year, 21 percent responded. This year the total is just 13 percent.

U.S. News rankings have been controversial with educators (and popular with the public) for years, and some critics reject the idea of rankings altogether. But for many, the reputation surveys are particularly problematic. They note that college presidents may be tempted to rely on out-of-date reputations, may speed through the rankings with little thought or may even give low rankings to colleges that are competitors. While the potential for the latter problem was scoffed at for years by those who do rankings, a speech by a Clemson University official in 2009 revealed that this was the practice there. And an Inside Higher Ed survey using state open records laws found that Clemson was not alone.

And then there is the question of participation rates. At one point, participation rates were as high as 67 percent; drops since then have led many critics to argue that whatever value the evaluations had with a high participation rate was diminished by the falling numbers. U.S. News officials were cheered the past few years when the drops stopped, but gave no indication that the new declines would cause any rethinking of the use of the surveys.

Robert Morse, who leads the magazine's rankings efforts, said that the decrease may have been due to shifts in categories of some colleges this year, resulting from changes in the classifications used by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (and used in turn by the magazine). In addition, some new colleges were added this year. He speculated that these changes may have resulted in an increase in colleges that "didn't know the new schools" in their categories.

He said that one possibility is that the magazine might use the most recent two years of peer evaluations down the road, rather than just one, so that there would be more respondents for each college.

And that approach may make even more sense for the ratings of high school counselors, regarding which Morse acknowledged, "I wish the response rate was higher." He stressed, however, that the magazine will not stop its surveys. "We aren't backing down," he said.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a group that has discouraged students from paying attention to rankings and has discouraged presidents from filling out the surveys, said he was pleased with the drop in participation. While the magazine noted an apparent leveling off of the decline for the last two years, Thacker said that "change takes time, I guess."

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