The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges ranking is highly respected by many colleges, students, and parents, but not everyone is on board. There’s a small but growing movement among college presidents to speak out against the rankings, with many of them criticizing the magazine for creating an arbitrary list that can have major implications for colleges and students. Read on to say what 10 of the most outspoken college presidents have to say about the popular Best Colleges rankings, and what they think needs to change.
President Nelson is one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. News rankings. Nelson says, “the rankings purport to do something that they can’t do well: to give an objective opinion on a single scale with a lot of data, on what is the single best college in the country.” Instead of choosing the best college based on data, Nelson prefers that the value of education not be quantified in such a manner. Although his school, St. John’s College, appears on the list of national liberal arts colleges, Nelson does not participate in the surveys sent out by U.S. News.
Reed College was one of the first campuses to refuse to cooperate with the U.S. News survey. In fact, it’s believed that due to former Reed College Steven Koblik’s refusal to participate in the rankings, U.S. news struck back, giving Reed the lowest possible score in every category and plunging it to the bottom of the rankings. Koblik has said, “Higher education isn’t a commodity like cars or refrigerators. There aren’t 25 colleges in this country that are best for everyone.” So since 1995, Reed has not participated in the rankings, although Reed does participate in other college guides that to not assign numerical rankings to institutions.
Michele Tolela Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence College believes that the U.S. News best colleges rankings “benefits from our appetite for shortcuts,” but despite their incredible appeal, the rankings are “far from reliable.” When Sarah Lawrence decided to stop using SAT scores in the admissions process, the lack of data put their U.S. News ranking in jeopardy, as the survey estimates or “makes up” a number in the absence of a real one. Sarah Lawrence has since declined to participate in the peer reputational survey and data collection from U.S. News, but has recently made SAT and ACT test results a part of their admissions process once again.
Vassar College president Catharine Hill is concerned that U.S. News seems to pay to attention to diversity in its rankings, and encourages the publication to make diversity a part of the rankings formula. Hill wrote a piece of Inside Higher Ed: Diversity and the Rankings, in which she explained her proposal for factoring socioeconomic diversity into the formula. Hill argues that while top colleges and universities make diversity a big part of their mission statements and financial aid policies, it doesn’t make much sense to leave this data out of any major ranking of the colleges. In fact, Hill created her own ranking, rating schools according to their success in enrolling low income Pell Grant students.
Former Stanford University president Gerhard Casper was among the first to speak out against the U.S. News rankings, most notably with a 1996 letter to the editor explaining his skepticism that the quality of a magazine could be measure statistically. Casper’s letter kicked off a wave of controversy, and was followed with an assertion that Stanford would no longer submit to the survey, along with encouragements for U.S. News to reform its survey practices.
Walter Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith College, has joined the opposition to the U.S. News rankings because he believes that the magazine’s methodology “penalizes historically black colleges” for their mission to reach out to students who may not score highly on standardized tests. U.S. News favors colleges that reject many of their applicants, admit only high SAT scoring students, and have huge endowments, which is contrary to what Philander Smith and other historically black colleges have set out to do. Kimbrough explains, “our mission is to provide access to students who don’t otherwise have access,” and Philander Smith succeeds with these students, even without a large endowment that might encourage U.S. News to give a high ranking to the college.
DePauw University president Robert G. Bottoms has spoken out against the U.S. News ranking system, arguing that it “does not provide reliable data for prospective students and their parents.” Bottoms has pointed out that a school like DePauw has many unique facets and experiences that can’t necessarily be ranked with data. Although the university continues to share data with U.S. News per university policy, Dr. Bottoms does not participate in the reputational survey because he believes it is “very disturbing” that “one quarter of a college’s ranking is based upon what is, in essence, its popularity.”
Former Gettysburg College president Katherine Haley Will was also formerly the chair of the Annapolis Group, an alliance among liberal arts colleges that typically do not participate in the reputational survey sent by U.S. News. Will has argued, “an educational experience can’t be reduced to one number, a school’s so-called rank. The simplicity of a rank is understandably more appealing than spending hours poring over college catalogues and visiting campuses, but myriad complex variables can’t be reduced to a single number.” She is most notably critical of the reputational survey as the largest single factor in the rating formula, explaining, “it is unrealistic to expect academic officials to know enough about hundreds of institutions to fairly evaluate the quality of their programs.”
Trinity University Patricia McGuire’s advice to fellow college and university presidents on the U.S. News reputational survey is to “rip it up and throw it away.” McGuire encourages college presidents to “show some backbone and stop colluding in this unseemly beauty contest.” Her major problem with the survey is that it’s largely based on gossip, and the data portion doesn’t do much better, assessing schools’ quality based on information that may or may not actually reveal the truth. According to McGuire, “some of the actual best colleges in this nation do not fare well in the U.S. News survey because they do not have the wealth, big-time sports notoriety or public relations clout to influence the peer voting system.”
William G. Durden, Dickinson College:
Dickinson College president William G. Durden takes offense to the U.S. News survey, refusing to “respond like lemmings” to the magazine’s request for data. In fact, as Durden points out, with its survey, U.S. News is extracting free labor from college presidents, and their cooperation significantly reduces the cost of producing the magazine’s most popular issue as colleges scramble to find information that is often publicly available for U.S. News researchers to find on their own. Durden does not participate in the survey, and has encouraged other college presidents to “disengage from the exploitation of a business model with which we have been, perhaps unwittingly, complicit for decades.”