In spring, the flowers bloom, the birds sing, and U.S. News & World Report produces a lot of mail.
Recently, the magazine sent its annual “peer assessment” survey to colleges and universities, the results of which will influence the next round of college rankings, due in August. This year, U.S. News once again solicited the views of high-school counselors, who view the admissions realm from the trenches.
It’s a fascinating pairing. On the one hand, many counselors have a deep well of information (and opinions) about particular colleges. Some know far more than the college presidents, admission deans, and provosts who fill out the peer-assessment survey. So why not ask counselors for their two cents?
“We highly respect counselors,” says Robert J. Morse, director of data research for U.S. News. “They have a lot of expertise about colleges—it’s their job.”
Nonetheless, counselors, in general, are not inclined to think of colleges in terms of numbers—or to ask whether one college is better, per se, than the other. In fact, many believe that their jobs require them to think outside the constraints of top-25 lists. “You have to evaluate colleges within the confines of what a particular student is looking for—the match,” says Diana R. Blitz, a college counselor at Montgomery Blair High School, in Maryland.
U.S. News brought counselors into the fold for the first time in 2008 (it did not survey them last year). It sent the survey to 1,600 counselors, and slightly more than a quarter responded. Although those assessments of colleges did not factor into the overall rankings, the magazine published a list of the top institutions in two categories—”national universities” and liberal-arts colleges—based on the counselors’ responses.
This year, U.S. News will also ask counselors to nominate colleges as “regional favorites” (from the North, South, Midwest, and West), depending on their high school’s location. As in 2008, this year’s survey went only to counselors (about 1,800) at public high schools included in America’s Best High Schools, a guide U.S. News compiles annually.
Jay Bass, director of counseling services at Thomas S. Wootton High School, in Maryland, completed the survey in 2008. This year, he thinks he’ll pass. “The task itself is an overwhelming request,” he says. “There are a good many colleges on there, including many that I haven’t heard of. It’s sort of hit or miss.”
In 2008, Mr. Bass circulated the survey among his colleagues at the high school. The ratings of different colleges varied from counselor to counselor, according to their own experiences. That inconsistency gave him pause, as did the survey’s 1-to-5 scale, which asks respondents to rate colleges as “marginal,” “adequate,” “good,” “strong,” or “distinguished” (“don’t know” is also an option).
Mr. Bass says he was not sure what to evaluate: “Am I supposed to rate their support services? Their receptiveness to questions? Their admissions process?”
Still, one could ask: is giving counselors a voice in the rankings, however simplistic, better than giving them no voice at all?
Yesterday, I posed the question to Mr. Bass and several other counselors. Although most said they disliked the one-word format of the survey, they agreed that U.S. News was right to ask for some kind of input from counselors. They just weren’t sure what a better alternative might look like.
Brad MacGowan, however, believes counselors should have nothing to do with the rankings. Mr. MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School, in Massachusetts, questioned the validity of a survey sent only to a select group of high schools. And he worried about the idea that by participating, counselors would lend legitimacy to what he considers a flawed way of evaluating colleges.
“It’s sort of like voting in an election that’s rigged,” he says. “I would rather not vote.”