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Is there a college president out there who truly believes current ranking schemes are properly serving the educational needs of students and the espoused values of institutions? Are there presidents who think their institutions have benefited from using deep discounting to achieve status and rank? Is the mission of colleges to maximize net revenue, rank, status and prestige, or to provide quality educational opportunities to those who can benefit from the experience? Do our admission practices reflect and encourage the kinds of values and traits that educators are entrusted to foster in students?

Questions such as these have emerged from the research of dedicated educators and scholars and in reaction to recent reports of colleges falsifying data in order to improve rank. But while the consideration of such questions may encourage moral reasoning among college presidents, it does not necessarily lead them to act accordingly.

My own limited experiment in trying to foster movement beyond the pernicious influence of commercial rankings suggests that college presidents may act more responsibly if there is perceived opportunity in doing so, and that such courageous actions can make a difference.

Where one stands on this issue, however, is often influenced by where one sits – particularly with respect to the rankings. When news spread that a group of colleges had signed a letter pledging to boycott U.S. News & World Report college rankings, I received calls from two presidents at highly selective colleges saying they wanted to sign the letter but feared their trustees would not go along. Two Ivy League college officials also reported that while their presidents were reluctant to sign ultimatums, they agreed with the letter’s sentiments and would abide by its prescriptions by not cooperating with U.S. News.

Recent circumstances indicate that the U.S. News rankings enterprise is struggling, and it is increasingly relying on colleges to prop it up. The precipitous drop in reputational survey response among colleges has contributed to increasing skepticism about the rankings;  the proliferation of other ranking schemes seems to be diluting the importance of any one; decreasing interest in rankings among parents and students affect magazine sales and website traffic. But there is money to be made from colleges using the U.S. News brand to advertise their rank! Troublingly, more than 70 percent of college admission representatives recently surveyed reported that their colleges use their U.S. News rank for marketing purposes despite an 80 percent agreement that rankings are misleading! Colleges that have instead decided to say no to U.S. News report that taking the educational high road is improving their educational stature: their stance on the rankings matters more than their standing in the rankings.

So, there is a different and encouraging narrative -- one supported by foundations, colleges and organizations. This path provides alternatives to the alarming reports of questionable behavior and poor educational returns associated with driving under the influence of the rankings.  Here is a significant opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.

Below is a list of things college presidents can do to help steer our country to a better understanding and demonstration of educational quality than that represented by rankings.

  • Join other college leaders by pledging to sign the letter that first circulated a few years ago.
  • Agree to follow the actions prescribed in the letter: Do not complete reputation surveys, and do not use rank to promote your institution.
  • Help your trustees consider the educational impact of commercial rankings and the leadership opportunities for your institution to move beyond the influence of rankings.
  • Participate in evolving collaborative efforts to identify and deliver meaningful college information and helpful college selection guidance.

Someone once said, 'If we can’t trust our college and university leaders to do the right thing, then who can we trust?" A good friend once said, “Education is the crucible of hope.” The high level of public cynicism about higher education can and should be addressed by college presidents acting together to move beyond the influence of commercial rankings. Here is an opportunity for college presidents to demonstrate the kind of leadership many colleges purport to instill in their students.


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