As in the past five years, Yale was ranked third in the U.S. News & World Report national college rankings that came out last week. But perhaps more significantly, as in the past two years, Yale did not return the magazine’s peer review survey that asks for opinions of other colleges.

What might seem like an administrative oversight is actually a major statement in the ongoing national controversy surrounding the rankings system and its influence on the college-admissions process. Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel told the News this week that he has not returned the peer review survey since he assumed the dean’s post in 2005. By not returning the survey — but not signing on to a boycott of it, either — Yale has taken a significant step in a continuing effort to walk the tightrope between supporting the anti-rankings movement and maintaining an appropriate distance from the petition-signing tumult.

The 2009 list of America’s Best Colleges places Yale behind Harvard and Princeton universities, which finished in first and second places, respectively, in a reversal of last year’s positioning. Both Yale and Harvard have said that they did not return the 2009 peer review surveys, while a Princeton spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the university had filled out the survey.

Yale was not the only school to decide not to return the 2009 peer review survey — in fact, this year’s overall participation rate among colleges dropped to an all-time low, continuing the downward trend in the number of colleges evaluating each other. The subjective peer review survey is separate from the statistical survey, which asks for quantitative data on the school such as acceptance rates and alumni giving numbers.

In the past year, Yale has positioned itself in opposition to the magazine’s “rigid formula” and ordinal rankings, in the words of Brenzel, claiming that the scores institutions receive do not accurately reflect the full scope of their undergraduate offerings.

Yale has also publicly aligned itself with the anti-rankings movement spearheaded by the nonprofit Education Conservancy. Last September, the University hosted a conference sponsored by the organization to encourage education leaders to discuss alternatives to the current rankings system, and donated $30,000 to help develop such an alternative.

But so far, University President Richard Levin has not joined the 67 college presidents who have signed a letter vowing not to complete the peer review survey, which makes up 25 percent of the magazine’s formula for determining college rankings.

Despite not signing the letter, Yale acted in concert with the rest of the anti-rankings movement by not completing the peer review, sending a clear message to the magazine about how it views the rankings.

“We are not big on signing group petitions or pledges at Yale,” Brenzel wrote in an e-mail. “In general there is the challenge of becoming beholden to other peoples’ organizational agendas or becoming a target for any group who has a worthy cause, but where particular points of difference may arise.”

Brenzel said he would continue to ignore the peer review survey in future years, also noting that Yale does not quote its rankings on various lists such as “America’s Best Colleges” in outreach materials.

This year, the percentage of colleges returning the U.S. News peer review survey dropped to an all-time low of 46 percent, down from 51 percent last year, 58 percent the year before that, and 67 percent a few years earlier.

Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, maintained that the drop in the participation rate in the “national university” category — of which Yale is a member — was less significant, from 63 percent for the 2007 rankings to 56 percent this year.

“Fifty-six percent is considered a very good response rate for a mail survey,” Morse said.

Morse cited general survey fatigue and “chaos on campus” — referring to competing priorities for schools faced with filling out the survey — as two possible explanations for the decrease in participation. This year’s two new features, a list of “up and coming” colleges and a survey of high-school counselors, should address some critics’ complaints about the rankings, Morse added.

When asked whether the Education Conservancy’s efforts to encourage schools not to participate in the peer review survey might account for part of the drop, Morse declined to comment.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, said he thinks the drop in the participation rate could be an indication that his organization’s efforts are bearing fruit.

“We look at this as a success and a sign that colleges are responding to their public-interest charge as educational leaders,” Thacker said. “Colleges are beginning to ask, ‘Are we going to allow ourselves to be forced to compete to make rank at the expense of our public purpose, which is education, or are we going to say no to the rankings and yes to something better?’”

This “something better” — a Web site for students and their advisers and parents — will be unveiled as a prototype on September 25, Thacker said. The interactive site will feature questions to help high-school students determine what colleges might be good matches for them and provide a forum for them to chat directly with students at those schools.

The development of the site was supported by donations from 30 colleges, including Yale and Princeton.

Brenzel’s support for the Education Conservancy’s project comes despite his awareness that the organization faces long odds.

“Frankly, I do not know what the chances are that an alternative supported by a large number of colleges will actually launch and compete successfully with commercial publications and their ranking lists, or who might ultimately sponsor such a project,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But I will continue to do what I can to make that happen.”

In this year’s rankings, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shared the fourth-place berth. Among liberal-arts colleges, which are ranked separately, Williams and Amherst colleges finished first.