September 19, 2007

U of C snags no. 9 spot amid U.S. News criticisms

The University of Chicago ranked ninth among national colleges and universities in the annual rankings released by U.S. News and World Report last month, tying with New York’s Columbia University to round out the top 10 slots. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale once again led the increasingly controversial list that has drawn the ire of some college presidents and non-profit education organizations. The University retained its position from last year, when it made a surprise six-spot jump from a 2005 tie with Brown University at 15.

That gain came after University administrators made adjustments to their data submissions to the survey following a meeting with representatives from the magazine. The U of C officials realized they had been under- or misreporting certain financial resources, said Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment Michael Behnke.

The jump led some local media outlets to criticize the University for what they considered an engineered improvement in the rankings spurred by simply altering its appearance on paper. Those criticisms reflect the growing opposition to U.S. News’s ranking system, which in recent months has been barraged with claims that its motivations are more profit-driven than educational.

Due to the U.S. News’s and other rankings’ prominence in the media and among prospective applicants each year, universities, whether they agree with the ranking system or not, would prefer to be nearer the top than the bottom of the list, leading to what the non-profit Education Conservancy describes as unwarranted competition among institutions.

Last year, the University ranked first for “best undergraduate academic experience” in the Princeton Review’s annual college rankings. This year, that category did not exist.

The rankings are based on university-submitted data such as graduation and retention rates, endowments, and selectivity as well as a section that asks university presidents and other top administrators to assess peer institutions’ academic reputations. That section carries as much as 25 percent of the weight of the overall rankings formula, and is at the center of recent controversy surrounding the system.

In May, the Education Conservancy, which advocates for improved college application processes around the country, began circulating a letter to university presidents asking them to refuse to fill out the reputation portion of the U.S. News survey because of its subjective nature, which, the Conservancy believes, says little about how well a college will match a student’s needs. Since then, at least 64 college presidents, including that of the University of Illinois at Chicago, have signed the letter.

“We believe these rankings are misleading and do not serve well the interests of prospective students in finding a college or university that is well suited to their education beyond high school,” the presidents said in the letter. Among other reasons, they argue that the rankings “encourage wasteful spending and gamesmanship in institutions’ pursuing improved rankings…and overweight the importance of a university’s prestige.”

While President Robert Zimmer has not signed the letter, Behnke said that the Education Conservancy’s position is “the position we’ve always taken.” He said that while some of the individual components of the U.S. News survey that collect data such as admission rates and average class size make sense, the idea of having the annual rankings is “ridiculous” because they “have no validity.”

Still, despite their stated skepticism of the rankings systems, University administrators will likely continue to participate in the process for the foreseeable future.

“The rankings are not going to go away, so we’d prefer for them to have accurate information than to go fishing around websites” for data, Behnke said. “There are some colleges that don’t participate but that are still ranked.”

And while administrators might denounce the validity of the rankings, some critics charge that the University’s standing has become too important an emphasis; the switch to the Common Application last year was attributed by detractors as a ploy to improve key statistics in the U.S. News rankings.

It is this situation that critics of U.S. News and World Report think will only be resolved when colleges stop participating in the subjective portions of the survey and support a more objective system for providing prospective students with accurate data about schools.

In June, the Annapolis Group, a consortium of national private liberal arts colleges, announced that it would develop a common format for presenting relevant information to prospective students that would provide comparisons when appropriate but not rank colleges in any way. The group also intends to work with other organizations pursuing similar projects including the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, of which the University of Chicago is a member.

Behnke said that he would cooperate with any efforts to develop an alternative system for comparing colleges and universities.

In response to the Annapolis Group’s announcement, Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News, wrote on the magazine’s website that “in terms of the peer assessment survey, we at U.S. News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the ‘intangibles’ of a college that we can’t measure through statistical data.”

Morse added that the reputation of an institution is a reality of the college search process and “can help get that all-important first job and plays a key part in which grad school someone will be able to get into.”