St. John's boycotts college rankings

The Baltimore Sun

The doggedly old-fashioned St. John's College in Annapolis considers its students scholars in the mold of ancients, not modern consumers of an educational pedigree.

So it's not surprising that the campus with the "Great Books" curriculum is among a dozen colleges advocating a boycott of a U.S. News & World Report survey that asks schools to rate their peers. The survey factors heavily into the magazine's influential college rankings.

"I don't think prestige has anything to do with the education students are getting," said St. John's President Christopher Nelson. By participating in the magazine's "peer assessment" surveys, he said, colleges "are falling prey to a real evil, as far as I'm concerned."

Nelson and the presidents of 11 other liberal arts colleges have signed a letter asking other presidents to join in boycotting the U.S. News reputation survey and pledging to eschew the rankings in publicity materials.

"We believe these rankings are misleading and ... imply a false precision and authority that is not warranted by the data they use," the presidents wrote.

Not everyone agrees. The presidents of some other liberal arts colleges in Maryland, while expressing sympathy with the concerns of their boycotting colleagues, said they would not participate in the action.

"Reputation does matter, and although I have the same frustrations that are articulated by the presidents who are fed up with the narrowness of the ratings ... I also find there is no alternative," said Jane Margaret O'Brien, president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. The school is one of only three publicly funded colleges ranked in the magazine's Top 100 liberal arts colleges.

U.S. News has published annual rankings of U.S. colleges since the 1980s. In compiling its lists, the magazine asks colleges to provide two sets of data: standardized statistics about factors such as selectivity, enrollment and graduation rates; and information about how top administrators perceive their peer institutions.

It is the second survey that is at the heart of the current debate. The boycott's advocates object to the reputation metric - which accounts for 25 percent of a school's ranking - because it tries to quantify something as subjective as academic reputation.

U.S. News editor Brian Kelly said the peer-evaluation survey captures the "intangibles" that statistical data can't convey but that are important to students when they consider where to invest $40,000 or more a year for a private college education.

"We are in the consumer journalism business, and we think that rankings are a part of that," Kelly said. "There's a certain hypocrisy when you hear these officials say their colleges are too nuanced to be captured by numbers, and in the same breath that you can't use the peer survey because it's not counted by numbers."

The boycott letter, the brainchild of the upstart nonprofit Education Conservancy, which advocates for college-admission reform, will go out to hundreds of liberal arts college presidents this week, said the conservancy's president, Lloyd Thacker.

U.S. News and some college-admissions experts dismissed the likelihood that the boycott will catch on. And the magazine's director of data research, Robert Morse, said that even if many senior college administrators were to refuse to fill out the peer-review questionnaire, U.S. News would simply seek the opinions of others, such as high school college counselors.

The bulk of the statistical data that account for two-thirds of the magazine's ranking methodology is publicly available elsewhere, Morse said.

Among the signatories to the boycott letter are the presidents of St. John's sister campus in Santa Fe, N.M., as well as Dickinson and Lafayette colleges in Pennsylvania, Drew University of New Jersey and Earlham College in Indiana.

Though some of the schools are in the Top 100 of the magazine's ranking of liberal arts colleges, none makes the elite cut of the top 20 small campuses.

The boycott would only be "effective if the elite institutions will join, and they never will," said Richard A. Hesel of Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that has conducted research about the influence of rankings on prospective college students.

Of the 18 colleges invited to sign on to the boycott, six declined, among them Amherst College, the No. 2 liberal arts college in the magazine's 2007 rankings, and No. 20 Colby College, Thacker said.

But St. John's Nelson is hopeful that colleges' disaffection with the much-maligned rankings has reached a "tipping point." He plans on taking up the boycott question in June at the next meeting of the Annapolis Group, an informal colloquium of the country's 125 best-known liberal arts colleges.

"I have no idea whether we'll take any action," said Nelson, a founder of the group. He said the publicity surrounding the boycott has already generated more than 115 e-mails from member presidents on a virtual discussion forum.

Supporters of the boycott argue that participating in the reputational survey makes schools complicit in a perversion of the college-selection process that has elevated superficial notions of status above academic or cultural criteria.

"All I'm asking college presidents to do is help colleges think their way out of the cynical, pernicious influence of the rankings," said Thacker, "because it's distorting the way education is perceived."

Small colleges are more susceptible to vague barometers of prestige than are large campuses because liberal arts schools do not typically get publicity from major research projects or big-time athletics, said Hesel.

The number of colleges participating in the peer-review survey has dropped from 67 percent in the 2001 edition to 58 percent in 2007, but that is still high enough to generate a statistically meaningful result, according to Morse, the magazine's research director.

Thacker hopes that encouraging colleges to sign up en masse for a boycott will make it easier for presidents to hazard the risk of taking a rebellious stance. "I call it benevolent collusion," he said. "Perhaps if we can get a group of similar colleges to agree to do this together, we can share the risk, spread the risk around."

Ronald Volpe, president of Hood College in Frederick, called the actions of the 12 boycotting signatories "courageous" but said he would take a wait-and-see position. "Down the road, if there was a large movement among all colleges and universities, I think Hood would be there," Volpe said.

William E. Kirwan, the chancellor of the 11-campus University System of Maryland, said the outcome of the small-college boycott initiative might cause larger universities to consider their own cooperation with the U.S. News rankings.

The "overall impact [of the rankings] on higher education has been quite negative," Kirwan said. "I think it has distorted the allocation of financial aid, for instance, as institutions try to buy students with high test scores."

The university system has not taken a position on the boycott, Kirwan said, but "I am sympathetic to it."

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