In the realm of college admissions, today is a day to rejoice—or rant. It all depends on your opinion of college rankings (or, perhaps, your college’s place on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list).
Today the magazine unveiled the 2011 edition of Best Colleges. As you may have heard, some university in Massachusetts topped the list of national universities, and a small college in the same state took the top spot on the list of liberal-arts colleges.
Although some things never change, the ranking methodology does. This year, for the first time, U.S. News included the views of high-school counselors in its measure of “academic reputation,” perhaps the most controversial aspect of the rankings. Previously, the magazine used only an annual “peer assessment” survey of college presidents, provosts, and admissions deans to calculate this measure, which accounted for 25 percent of each college’s overall ranking.
This year, U.S. News lowered the weight for academic reputation to 22.5 percent (for national universities and liberal-arts colleges only). Ratings by nearly 1,800 high-school counselors surveyed accounted for a third of that measure, and ratings by college administrators accounted for two-thirds. In other words, the opinions of college officials carry less weight than they did last year.
Complaints about the peer-assessment survey were among the reasons U.S. News brought counselors into the fold, says Robert J. Morse, the magazine’s director of data research. Over time, participation in the annual survey has declined steadily (this year, 48 percent of college officials who received questionnaires responded, the same as last year). For years, Mr. Morse has said that U.S. News would invite other experts to participate in the rankings, if necessary.
“We went out and searched for people who had a stake in admissions, who had a certain expertise,” Mr. Morse says. “High-school counselors play a big part in college admissions, so we counted their votes.”
The significance of this change may be more symbolic than substantial. Sure, the power of the peer-assessment survey, long loathed by some college officials and high-school counselors, has been diluted. Nevertheless, reputation—that slippery and subjective thing—still matters a lot in the U.S. News formula. The mix of reputational experts has just become more diverse.
“The concerns people have about rankings will not be assuaged by giving high-school counselors a voice in them,” says James W. Jump, director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School, in Richmond, Va., and the departing president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “The idea that No. 9 is better than No. 20 concerns me. Ranking simplifies what should be a complex process.”
In other changes this year, U.S. News raised the weight of the “predicted graduation rate” to 7.5 percent, from 5 percent, of a college’s overall ranking. The magazine also expanded the number of institutions ranked in each category, and it changed the names of two categories (“Universities-Master’s” and “Baccalaureate Colleges”) that had puzzled readers.
U.S. News considered at least one change that it did not make. In June, Mr. Morse wrote on his blog that he and his colleagues might add “yield” (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) back into the rankings. In 2003, the magazine’s editors removed the measure from its formula amid criticisms that the rankings had driven colleges to become obsessed with yield. Never mind that colleges have long had plenty of other reasons to fret about yield, or that yield accounted for only 1.5 percent of a college’s ranking by U.S. News.
“In the end,” Mr. Morse says, “we didn’t want the discussion of yield to take away from the other changes we were making.”