Dozens of universities boycotting U.S. News annual survey

By Jonathan Wroble

Since 1983, the U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings have grown to include over 120 of the nation’s top schools. As of late, another collegiate list is growing: the number of institutions that might boycott the annual report.

In early April, dozens of universities took an early step against U.S. News by refusing to fill out the magazine’s national survey.

This survey, which contains 614 questions, is an integral predictor of the magazine’s yearly rankings.

“Most universities would agree that the U.S. News process, as most ranking processes are, is flawed at best,” said Robin Kaler, University spokesperson. “Over the years, institutions periodically raise this issue.”

This year, the biggest issue is the magazine’s “reputation survey,” a peer assessment that asks college administrators to rate hundreds of other schools on a scale of one to five. Accounting for 25 percent of any school’s rank, the reputation survey is the single biggest factor in the U.S. News list – and also its most controversial.

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“It’s a beauty contest,” said Kaler of the peer assessment. “The gap between (schools that are) well-known and not well-known gets wider.”

Nationwide, several college presidents – who are frequently relied upon to complete the peer assessment – have admitted to only knowing five or 10 schools well enough to actually “rate” them. Recently, 12 of these presidents drafted a boycott letter, which asks fellow institutions to discontinue two things: correspondence with U.S. News and use of its rankings for marketing materials.

While the University has neither received this letter nor plans to join any boycott, it too faces various incompatibilities with the U.S. News survey. The majority of University applicants report ACT scores, for example, which U.S. News does not accept. As a result, the magazine uses an “ACT to SAT conversion” that punishes the University, Kaler said.

Similarly affected is Sarah Lawrence College in New York, which no longer uses SAT scores in its admissions process. Michele Tolela Myers, the college’s president, recently wrote an editorial stating that U.S. News threatened to create an artificial number for Sarah Lawrence’s average SAT score – a claim the magazine later denied.

“This is one of the few (reports) that actually ranks,” said Kristine Campbell, coordinator of public affairs research. Campbell fills out the U.S. News survey on behalf of the University, which is due tomorrow for the 2008 rankings.

She also fills out surveys for groups like Vault and the College Entrance Examination Board, which do not rank and are less debated.

“The ranking part is what most people object to,” she explained.

In fact, U.S. News has a history of objections to its annual list. In a 2003 New York Times editorial, writer Nicholas Thompson observed that Princeton, Yale and Harvard routinely top the rankings. The article documented the one exception to this rule, when the California Institute of Technology landed the top spot in 1999.

That surprise, wrote Thompson, was due to a change in the magazine’s methodology, which was altered again before the next year’s rankings – when Princeton topped the 2000 list.

“(The U.S. News list) clearly is something that was created to sell magazines, not to give prospective students a good tool to make a decision,” Kaler said. “Letting other people make that decision for you is a mistake that can make your college career much less successful.”