Wheelock and 11 Other Colleges Raise Cry on School Rankings

Schools Calls US News Magazine's List Subjective and Unfair

Wheelock College, along with 11 other small liberal arts colleges, is urging other institutions to stop using the US News & World Report rankings to promote themselves, arguing the rankings are too subjective.

The colleges' presidents, in a letter e-mailed last week to hundreds of private colleges, said they oppose the magazine's reputational survey, which asks high-ranking administrators to rate a list of colleges nationwide based on what they know about the schools. The resulting reputation score counts 25 percent toward a college's overall ranking. The presidents are asking their peers not to fill out the survey.

"It's an unfair way to assess the quality and effectiveness of a college," said Jackie Jenkins-Scott, Wheelock's president, of the reputation ranking. "It's not a studied response. It's truly based on what people know about a college."

Wheelock, a 1,000-student college based in Boston, removed the magazine's Best Colleges seal of approval for its undergraduate and graduate school programs for liberal arts colleges from its Web site last week.

The US News & World Report rankings are widely considered the gold standard of college rankings because they are so comprehensive, using dozens of factors to assess more than 1,300 institutions nationwide. High school students rely on the magazine's annual rankings when choosing colleges, and several institutions, including Northeastern, have made pledges to improve their standings in the magazine's rankings as a way of increasing prestige.

Yet many college presidents have long complained the rankings have grown too influential and have given false perceptions of institutional quality because of rank ordering. Jenkins-Scott and others argue that it's impossible for college administrators to judge other colleges because they have not stepped foot in classrooms at most of them.

Brian Kelly, editor of US News & World Report, defended use of the reputational survey and the overall rankings.

"Who is better to rate peers than those who are in competition with them?" Kelly said. "We rely on knowledge of presidents and their good will to fill out these surveys thoroughly."

But he added: "If we can figure out a better way of doing it, we would modify it and give it a different weight."

In response to the push by the 12 schools, The Annapolis Group, a nonprofit association of the nation's top liberal arts colleges, will discuss its view on the magazine's reputation ranking at a membership meeting next month.

The magazine asks administrators to rate peer institutions on a scale of 1 to 5. The colleges are grouped by the hundreds into such divisions as major research universities, public state colleges, and small liberal arts schools.

Administrators also are given the opportunity to check a box next to each college, saying they don't know enough information to respond.

To stand out in the pack and to enhance prestige, some colleges have hired private consulting firms to persuade their peers to give them higher scores. The consultants bombard the colleges with brochures, other promotional literature, and even potted plants with notes attached, said some of the college presidents involved in the push to stop reputational rankings.

The Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group based in Oregon that opposes college rankings, is leading the effort to ban the reputational survey, and is sending out the letters signed by the presidents of 12 nationally- or regionally-known liberal arts colleges, ranging in size from 330 students to 2,500 students.

Along with Wheelock, the others are: Earlham College in Indiana; Dickinson College in Pennsylvania; Marlboro College in Vermont; Trinity University in Washington, D.C.; St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe; Heritage University in Washington; Southwestern University in Texas; Bethany College in West Virginia; Drew University in New Jersey; Lafayette College in Pennsylvania; and Denison University in Ohio.

One goal, in addition to warning the public about the problems with the way colleges are ranked, is to persuade US News & World Report to stop ranking colleges.

"The rankings imply a false sense of precision and authority that is simply not supported by data," said Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the conservancy.

US News & World Report has lessened its reliance over the years on the reputational surveys. When the magazine first published its list in 1983, it relied exclusively on reputational surveys. Since then, the magazine has incorporated other measures into the rankings, including SAT scores, class rank of admitted students, and student-faculty ratios, and has made some changes in response to criticism.

Kelly said the magazine reviews the methodology of its rankings several times a year and will do so again next month. He said the magazine already is considering a few changes, such as including the percentage of students receiving federal Pell grants.

That would address concerns about colleges being penalized for enrolling a high rate of poor students, he said. Poor students are at greater risk of dropping out of college, which affects graduation rates, another part of the magazine's ranking system.

He said the magazine has no intention to stop ranking.

"The rankings allow people to sort through a baffling array of choices," he said. "It's a starting point. This should not be an end point of the college search."