U.S. News & World Report's rankings are out today, and while the methodology hasn't changed, the way the rankings operation calculates "assessment of excellence" (widely known as the reputation survey) has changed, apparently in response to the participation rates of college presidents and high school guidance counselors. Survey responses for those two groups make up 22.5 percent of the formula (15 percent from the presidents survey and 7.5 percent from the counselors survey). This part of the rankings has long been criticized. Presidents have been known to rank only their own institutions highly, and many experts say that presidents and guidance counselors seem always to favor historically strong institutions, or the most prestigious colleges over time.
This year 50 percent of presidents in the national universities category responded to the survey, and 46 percent of the leaders of national liberal arts colleges responded. Only 7 percent of high school counselors responded to the survey. While the presidential response rate hasn't fallen dramatically in recent years, as recently as 2005, 67 percent of presidents responded. The drop has prompted some to question whether enough presidents were responding for the survey to be meaningful. So this year, U.S. News for the first time combined the last two years of surveys of presidents. And after several years of combining the past two years of high school counselors, U.S. News is combining the last three years for that survey. The rankings methodology allows those who responded in multiple years to be counted each year they participate.
Robert Morse, who heads the rankings operation at U.S. News, gave this reason via email for the changes: "In both cases, this was done to increase the number of ratings each college received from the academic raters and high school counselors and to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average peer score and high school counselor score."
We'll let other publications (and college public relations offices) boast about scores. But we can tell you that those at top of the various lists are … those whom you'd expect to find there.