College Presidents Boycott Rankings

62 presidents sign letter urging rejection of U.S. News & World Report survey

The News and Observer
August 16, 2007

By Jane Stancill

Later this week, U.S. News & World Report will release its annual “Best Colleges” issue, prompting robust sales and the usual flurry of press releases by schools touting their standings on the list. The rankings will also cause heartburn for some college presidents.

This year, 62 presidents are fighting back. They have signed a letter asking colleagues across the country to refuse to fill out the magazine’s survey about the reputations of their peers — a key part of the ranking. They also asked colleges to refrain from using the results in promotional materials.

“We believe these rankings are misleading and do not serve well the interests of prospective students in finding a college or university that is well suited to their education beyond high school,” the letter said. It added that the list encourages “wasteful spending and gamesmanship” among schools.

The letter was signed primarily by leaders of small universities and liberal arts schools such as Dickinson College, Kenyon College, Drew University and Furman University.

On Wednesday, U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly said survey responses had dipped this year, but there’s no way to attribute that to the college presidents’ letter. Kelly said responses were due the week of the Virginia Tech shooting, which preoccupied the higher education world.

Kelly said the magazine always looks for ways to improve the rankings, which put the late August issue among the 10 annual best-sellers.

“Our main audience for this is parents and students,” Kelly said. “We’re not writing this for college presidents.”

So far, no North Carolina higher education leaders have signed the letter. College presidents might not like the rankings, but many are fully engaged in the horse-race syndrome that results. Some take a realistic approach to U.S. News, the Princeton Review, Kiplinger’s and other rankings that have become part of the American way of shopping for college.

Anne Ponder, chancellor of UNC-Asheville, brought up the boycott at a senior management retreat during the summer, but ultimately decided “having rankings that help us promote ourselves to students who otherwise wouldn’t know about us, was, on balance a great thing.”

Ponder said UNCA, which generally does well in rankings, won’t use the U.S. News logo on its marketing materials, as some colleges do. And she said she would never make a decision about university priorities based on how it would affect rankings.

Ponder does see value in them because they measure important attributes such as small class size and faculty salary levels. “Those things tell the public about higher education,” she said.

Alternative measures
At a time when the federal government is calling for more transparency and accountability from higher education, alternatives to rankings are sprouting.

One that has gained momentum in recent years is the National Survey of Student Engagement, called the “Nessie,” which measures how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from their college experience.

In the past year, 610 colleges participated in the survey that takes into account active learning, academic challenge and study abroad experience. But the data is not released without each college’s permission.

Opponents of the U.S. News rankings are looking for their own new system of information about colleges.

Next month, educational leaders and researchers will gather at Yale University for a conference titled, “Beyond Ranking.” The event is sponsored by the Educational Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that organized the presidents’ letter against the U.S. News rankings.

‘The ranksters’
Lloyd Thacker, executive director and founder, said the commercial rankings — which he terms “the ranksters,” — distort the way education is perceived and pursued in the United States.

“You have colleges managing their images by the ranksters,” Thacker said. “I call it ranksteering, or driving under the influence.”

It will be difficult for college presidents to go against the tide.

“In general, colleges like the rankings when they’re doing well and they don’t like the rankings when they’re not doing well,” said Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington college consultant and author of “College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family” due in bookstores next month. “My families love the rankings. They’re beyond liking the rankings, they love the rankings. I’ve got families who walk in with dog-eared copies of U.S. News because they take it seriously.”

Two years ago, Goodman worked with a student who chose Duke over a full scholarship at the University of Michigan. Last year, Duke ranked eighth and Michigan ranked 24th.

“In his world, the rankings reigned supreme,” Goodman said.

Despite Duke’s high position in U.S. News, Duke Provost Peter Lange said he just doesn’t like the ranking very much.

“It’s nice to be thought of as being very good,” Lange said, but he doesn’t take the up-and-down movement very seriously.

“Is there really a difference between number seven and number nine?” he asked. “Probably not, and how would you know?”

The rankings oversimplify what should be a sophisticated decision involving parents, students, friends, advisers, Lange said.

Maureen Hartford, president of Meredith College, is concerned that the rankings tend to measure the wrong things such as SAT scores, which she said aren’t good predictors of a student’s college performance.

“I am very competitive,” Hartford said. “I want to be ranked as high as Meredith can be. At the same time, all of us know there are measures that are more important to us — serving the community and graduating high numbers of students who are well prepared for the work force.”

Reducing higher education to a commodity is troubling, Hartford said, but on the other hand students and parents are making a huge investment and deserve to know what kind of outcome they’ll get.

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