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A dozen higher ed leaders urge colleges not to participate in “misleading” rankings

President Daniel Weiss, along with the leaders of 11 other colleges and universities, has signed a letter pledging not to participate in a significant portion of the U.S. News & World Report institutional rankings survey.

The letter will be distributed to hundreds of other college leaders and ask those presidents to join in refusing to fill out the U.S. News and World Report reputational survey. This is the part of the survey in which colleges rate each other, which accounts for 25 percent of a college’s ranking.

The letter also asks colleges to avoid using the rankings in the promotion of their institutions.

The letter and its signatories were made public by Lloyd Thacker, founder and director of the Education Conservancy, at the Education Writers Association national meeting on May 5. The Education Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that opposes commercial interference in college admissions and works to calm the frenzy in the current admissions process.

About his decision to join this initiative, Weiss says, “As a fairly new president but someone who has been a higher education administrator for a number of years, it’s clear to me that the U.S. News system of ranking colleges is not a particularly responsible or useful means for providing prospective students with the information they need to make an informed decision.

“On one hand, I don’t begrudge U.S. News anything – they are in the magazine business and with these rankings, they have created a terrific buzz around who’s up, who’s down, and what’s new each year. What is regrettable, however, is that leadership in higher education has responded to this market phenomenon by managing their respective institutions in a manner that serves the ratings game. The consequence of this kind of leadership has been the reallocation of resources and the misdirection of priorities towards objectives that will result in an increase in the U.S. News rankings.

“I strongly believe that disclosing information about our relative institutions and informing prospective students is a serious responsibility and that our first obligation is to provide that information in a manner that encourages responsible decision-making. Moreover, one of the great assets of American higher education is the diversity of its offerings. The U.S. News system has placed too great an emphasis on homogenization and aspiration to reaching a single goal – namely improvement in their rankings.

“The Education Conservancy has taken on the onerous task of leading higher education in the direction of better evaluation systems. I applaud that.”

News of the initiative was carried nationally by the Associated Press wire service today.

The full text of the letter is below:

May 5, 2007

Dear President [Name]:

We are writing to seek your commitment (and the commitment of your institution) to a new approach to rankings of colleges and universities compiled by U.S. News and World Report.

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. Among other reasons, we believe this because such rankings

  • imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use;
  • obscure important differences in educational mission in aligning institutions on a single scale;
  • say nothing or very little about whether students are actually learning at particular colleges or universities;
  • encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions’ pursuing improved rankings;
  • overlook the importance of a student in making education happen and overweight the importance of a university’s prestige in that process; and
  • degrade for students the educational value of the college search process.

While we believe colleges and universities may want to cooperate in providing data to publications for the purposes of rankings, we believe such data provision should be limited to data which is collected in accord with clear, shared professional standards (not the idiosyncratic standards of any single publication), and to data which is required to be reported to state or federal officials or which the institution believes (in accord with good accountability) should routinely be made available to any member of the public who seeks it.

We ask you to make the following two commitments:

1. Refuse to fill out the U.S. News and World Report reputational survey.

2. Refuse to use the rankings in any promotional efforts on behalf of your college or university, and more generally, refuse to refer to the rankings as an indication of the quality of your college or university.

Each of us has already made these commitments. We ask you to do the same.

In accord with these commitments, you may want to provide a link on your website to information about how you are ranked by U.S. News and World Report, but to do this in a way that simply provides information, not in a way that suggests you value the specific ranking or support the ranking project. Similarly, in answering questions from students, parents, reporters, alumni, or prospective students and parents, these commitments would lead you to answer such questions factually, but not in a way that suggests you value how you are ranked or that suggests support for the ranking project.

Other publications also provide rankings of colleges and universities, and the commitments stated here may also guide you in deciding whether or how to respond to requests from or inquiries about these other rankings.

As we go forward, we will also be working with the Education Conservancy and with other groups to develop clear explanations of what rankings of colleges and universities do and do not mean, and to develop better approaches (including ones that assess student learning) to helping prospective students find and evaluate colleges and universities that will serve well their education beyond high school.

Will you join us in these endeavors?

Sincerely yours,

Douglas C. Bennett, Earlham College
William G. Durden, Dickinson College
Jackie Jenkins-Scott, Wheelock College
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, Marlboro College
Patricia McGuire, Trinity (D.C.) University
Christopher Nelson, St. John’s College (Annapolis)
Michael Peters, St. John’s College (Santa Fe)
Kathleen Ross, Heritage University
Jake Schrum, Southwestern University
G. T. “Buck” Smith, Bethany College
Robert Weisbuch, Drew University
Daniel H. Weiss, Lafayette College

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