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‘U.S. News’ Keeps Courting High-School Counselors

For all those keeping score at home, Harvard and Princeton Universities tied for first, Yale University came in third, and East Carolina University shared the 194th spot with eight other institutions.

Today, U.S. News & World Report unveiled the new edition of its Best Colleges. For the second year in a row, high-school counselors had a say in the rankings. At least, about 300 of them did—just a fraction of those who were invited to participate.

Love it or hate it, U.S. News is soliciting the opinions of more and more high-school counselors, who are relative newcomers to the annual-rankings ritual. In 2008, U.S. News first asked counselors to rate national universities and liberal-arts colleges; the results were published in the form of two stand-alone lists. Last year, for the first time, U.S. News included counselors’ ratings of colleges in its measure of “academic reputation,” the most controversial aspect of the rankings that critics have long dismissed as a popularity contest.

Previously, U.S. News surveyed only college presidents, provosts, and admissions deans to calculate that measure, which now makes up 22.5 percent of a college’s ranking over all. (Counselors’ ratings count 7.5 percent; college officials’ ratings count 15 percent.)

The list of high schools that receive such invitations has grown. Last year the survey went to counselors at the 1,800 public high schools included in America’s Best High Schools, compiled by U.S. News. Twenty-one percent of them completed the surveys, which ask respondents to rank colleges on a scale of 1 (“marginal”) to 5 (“distinguished”).

This year U.S. News sent the survey to the same public high schools, as well as to counselors at about 600 private and independent high schools. Out of some 2,400 potential respondents, 13.4 percent participated in the survey.

In other words, counselors are much less willing to participate in this exercise than admissions deans, presidents, and provosts are. This year the response rate among college officials was 43 percent, compared with 48 percent last year. Although participation in the annual survey has declined steadily over the last decade (in 2000, the response rate was 68 percent), it’s still relatively high, as far as surveys go.

For years Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, has said that his staff would invite other experts to participate in the rankings, if necessary. Counselors were a natural choice, he says. In the online edition of this year’s rankings, U.S. News writes that, over the years, counselors “have asked many times that U.S. News take account of their opinions in preparing the Best Colleges rankings.”

Alas, nobody at U.S. News could put me in touch with a counselor who had clamored to be included, or even one who had participated this year. Mr. Morse explained that completed surveys do not bear respondents’ names. Although surveys sent to private high schools do include the name of the institution, they are not returned to Mr. Morse’s office, in Washington, where he and his staff compile the rankings.

Surely not all counselors share the same opinion of college rankings, although it’s easy to imagine that they do. After all, most counselors quoted in newspapers (as well as most of those I’ve ever interviewed) describe rankings the way one might describe a wet rat. Brad MacGowan, a counselor at Newton North High School, in Massachusetts, told me a while back that his colleagues who had completed the survey “should have thrown it in the wastebasket.”

Last week I set out to speak with some of the counselors who hadn’t thrown the survey in the trash, but they proved elusive. I contacted counselors at a dozen high schools included in the most recent edition of America’s Best High Schools. I also asked a handful of counselors at the nation’s largest private and independent high schools. Although that was hardly a scientific approach, I couldn’t find one who had completed this year’s survey (or who would admit to doing so).

Barry T. Baker, director of college counseling at the California Academy of Math and Science, in Carson, Calif., says he filled out the survey back in 2008. This year, however, he recycled it.

Mr. Baker cites practical reasons. “It’s a big time commitment,” he says. Moreover, he wasn’t sure how to assess all of the 250-plus colleges listed on the survey, especially those that are far away from California or that lack strong mathematics and science programs. “Frankly, there are a lot of places I don’t know,” he says, “and I’ve been to hundreds of places.”

The notion that one college is better than another also bothers Mr. Baker. “It goes against the grain of what I do,” he says. “For some students, UCLA is a great place. For others, Pomona is a better place.”

Mr. Morse says he isn’t sure why the response rate among counselors was so low this time around. Adding private schools to the mix, he suggests, might explain the drop from last year. Nonetheless, he isn’t worried about the level of participation. A sufficient number of counselors are rating each college, Mr. Morse writes in an e-mail, “so the decline is not impacting the rankings or our abilities to rate schools using the HS counselor survey.”

Still, it would be great to hear from a living, breathing counselor who took the time to complete the form. Maybe you think the rankings are swell. Maybe you think they’re not swell, but appreciate the chance to have a say in them, nonetheless. I would love to hear from you, and you can reach me at eric(dot)hoover(at)chronicle(dot)com. Come on, I know you’re out there somewhere …

(For a rundown of changes in the rankings methodology this year, including the addition of some for-profit colleges and a new way of rating “nonresponder” institutions, click here.)

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