Colleges criticize US News rank criteria

The US News and World Report “America’s Best Colleges” rankings have been published every August since 1983, but many education administrators and college consultants are becoming more vocal in blaming them for providing inaccurate portraits of institutions and for heightening the stress of the admissions process.

Twelve private colleges are preparing an appeal to the higher education community that asks if other schools would be willing to stop sending information for the rankings, stop publicizing their ranks, or provide alternate data to the magazine that they think would make the rankings more meaningful, according to an article published in “Time Magazine” last week. The schools are arguing that US News’ assignment of numerical values to particular features of a college produces misleading judgments on the college as a whole. Although Yale is not joining with these institutions in denouncing the rankings, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said the University will continue to discuss the matter of college rankings with peer schools.

“I believe that ranking systems tend to fuel the false notion that it matters more which college a student attends than it matters how that student actually embraces and utilizes the extraordinary opportunities available at any great college,” he said. “On the other hand, I understand that families and applicants want to see reliable ways in which different colleges can be compared. I expect to stay involved in continuing discussions with the deans at other schools about existing ranking systems and about possible alternatives to them.”

Drew University was named in the article as one of the 12 schools participating in the appeal; the other 11 schools were not listed.

Yale President Richard Levin said that although he disagrees with the magazine’s misleading use of quantitative measures to evaluate schools, he would not support a movement to eliminate college rankings completely.

“If the letter says abolish any attempt by the press to characterize strong versus weak colleges, I would be opposed to that,” Levin said. “Schools have to be accountable, and it’s part of our tradition of free press to have external evaluators of the performance of our schools.”

The magazine ranks schools on a 100-point scale that takes into account such factors as graduation rate, admissions yield, student-faculty ratio, average SAT scores and alumni giving rate. The 2007 edition ranks Princeton as first, Harvard second, and Yale third among national universities. There is a separate ranking for liberal arts colleges, with Williams College ranked as the top school.

Kevin Carey, research and policy manager for the nonpartisan education policy think tank Education Sector, published a September report suggesting a reform of the rankings. His bone of contention with the US News and World Report system is the magazine’s focus on “fame, wealth and exclusivity,” which he said directly or indirectly account for 95 percent of an institution’s score. As a result, Carey said, colleges are spending more of their resources on advancing qualities that will help their score rather than the level of education, at the expense of students.

“To me, the biggest problem is that none of those things really have anything to do with the quality of education for the students,” he said. “The rankings provide incentives for institutions to increase the things the rankings are based on, so they raise tuition to raise more money, they try to be as exclusive as possible, and try to market themselves, and that distracts from the core learning missions.”

Carey said it would be a “selfless gesture” for Yale and other elite schools to join the movement against the rankings, as their continuous presence at the top of the list reinforces their prestigious images. But if top schools were willing to take a stand, he said, they could likely make a big difference in how the rankings are formulated.

“If the Ivy League schools were willing to step forward and honestly assess themselves by the quality of education they provide … and were willing to stand by that method, I think other schools would follow suit,” Carey said.

He said new criteria for schools’ scores could include student feedback about their undergraduate experiences, based on faculty interaction, how challenged they were, and exposure to other students of diverse backgrounds — all of which assess education quality.

Independent admissions consultant Sara Fargo said the criteria used for the rankings are not indicative of how an individual student will respond to a particular educational experience.

“I think it’s unnecessary, and I think it makes for a lot of stress,” she said. “It brings up the stressful idea that one college is going to give you a much better experience than another, and if you don’t get into that college, your life is going to be damaged.”

Beth Slattery, a counselor at the private Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, said she thinks it is appropriate to publish statistics about a college so that prospective students may use their own judgment in weighing the value of each criterion. But the particular weight that US News and World Report gives to each factor may not be right for everyone, she said. For example, people may assign different values to alumni giving rates or selectivity.

At a discussion panel in October, US News Executive Editor Brian Kelly defended the magazine’s method of evaluating schools. He said the alumni giving ratio that is incorporated into the rankings is a measure of how satisfied students are with their educations.

Some advisors said the rankings can be helpful if taken in the proper context.

Helen Britt, an independent counselor who formerly instructed at the college counselor certification program at the University of California, Berkeley, said students can look to the rankings for a sense of where a college stands among its peers. But prospective students should not discount the value of speaking with current students, visiting the campus, and consulting college guidebooks that provide more in-depth evaluations of experiences, she said.

“In many ways it’s hurtful, but I think the US News and World Report is really onto something by doing it,” Britt said. “But it’s been taken out of proportion, and it’s been made more important than it should be.”

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