Admissions & Student Aid

In the Latest 'U.S. News' Survey, a Higher Response Rate and the Usual Winners

Photographs by Rick Friedman

Harvard and Princeton Universities again tied for the No. 1 spot among national universities in the annual rankings released by U.S. News. The two have traded the top rank or tied for it every year for the last 10 years.
August 19, 2009

College participation in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings increased this year, after reaching its lowest level ever last year. Forty-eight percent of college leaders who were sent the peer-assessment survey responded this year, up from 46 percent.

The peer survey—the most controversial part of the rankings formula—asks presidents, provosts, and admissions deans to rate institutions on a scale of 1 to 5. The response rate has dropped from 68 percent in 1999, amid a steady drumbeat of anti-rankings rhetoric.

In 2007, the Education Conservancy, led by Lloyd Thacker, began pushing colleges to publicly boycott the survey. And a growing number of alternative rankings have cropped up in recent years. The latest, a grading system designed to measure what students will learn at a particular college, was released Wednesday by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (see related article).

Mr. Thacker, executive director of the conservancy and a prominent critic of the U.S. News rankings, does not put much stock in this year's survey response rate. But, he said, "to the extent that this measures a real change in how institutions are viewing this, it's disappointing news."

College leaders, Mr. Thacker said, should be touting educational values to potential students, not participating in commercial rankings that don't measure what students are learning.

Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, was not sure what contributed to the uptick in this year's survey-response rate. The rate also increased slightly between 2005 and 2006, before continuing to decline.

A controversy this year over how some public-college presidents filled out the peer survey might affect their participation in future years. Clemson University found itself on the wrong end of bad headlines in June after a staff member publicly accused it of gaming the rankings. In the aftermath, the college handed over its president's survey responses to several newspapers. And a handful of other public colleges had to do likewise, after their local papers filed open-records requests.

The dust-up "happened after the results had come in for this year," Mr. Morse said. "We'll have to see next year to what degree it inhibits participation."

The peer-assessment survey accounts for 25 percent of a college's score in the formula used to calculate the overall "best colleges" rankings.

In the future, the magazine may add survey responses from high-school counselors into the mix. Last year, it introduced a separate ranking based solely on a survey of 1,600 high-school counselors. The counselors were not surveyed again this year, but Mr. Morse said the magazine plans to survey a larger group, perhaps 2,000, for next year's college guide.

"We are going to consider the possibility of including high-school counselors as part of the rankings," he said. "We're definitely considering it."

The Perennial Picks

As for the results of this year's rankings, Harvard and Princeton Universities again tied for the No. 1 spot among national universities. The two have traded the top rank or tied for it every year for the last 10 years.

And rounding out the top national universities this year are several other of the usual suspects: Yale University (alone at No. 3) and the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania (clustered at No. 4).

Williams College got the top spot among liberal-arts colleges, and the University of California at Berkeley was the highest-ranked public institution.

U.S. News touts the consistency of the rankings as a sign of quality, while critics say the year-to-year similarities show that the list simply mirrors colleges' longstanding reputations.

Some students, though, do find the U.S. News rankings useful. Trevor B. Burnham grew up in Missoula, Mont., and said he didn't have the time or money to visit the distant liberal-arts colleges that interested him. So, as a high-school junior, he used the rankings to narrow down his selection.

"I applied to Carleton College, which I wouldn't have heard of otherwise, and it worked out wonderfully," he said. Mr. Burnham graduated from Carleton in 2008 and is now working toward a Ph.D. in the School of Information at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

New Additions

This year, U.S. News tried to more directly measure colleges' commitment to undergraduate teaching. It added a ranking in this category based on the responses to a new question in the peer-assessment survey. The question asked respondents to list institutions that had an "unusual commitment to teaching," said Mr. Morse, the magazine's data-research director. A college had to receive at least seven mentions to make the list, which includes 80 colleges. Dartmouth College got the No. 1 spot among national universities, and Pomona College did for liberal-arts colleges.

The new category "was prompted by the fact that by just using raw statistical data, we were not capturing the entire picture of a school," Mr. Morse said. "It was something we were not directly measuring."

This year, U.S. News also tweaked its methodology for the overall rankings. In previous years, when factoring entrance-test scores into a college's rank, the magazine included only the scores from either the ACT or SAT, whichever one was taken by a majority of applicants at a particular college. This year, however, the magazine combined the scores from both tests. Mr. Morse says the change happened for two reasons: "This is a better way to measure the entire class. And with the rise of the ACT, more and more schools are becoming mixed."

For most colleges, he said, the change did not make a significant difference in their rank.

Eric Hoover contributed to this report.