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College Ratings Race Roars On Despite Concerns

U.S, Aug 20: Richard J. Cook, the president of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, will not say precisely how he used to rate his college's competitors when the annual U.S. News & World Report peer review questionnaire showed up in his mailbox. What he will say is, "I filled it out more honestly this year than I did in the past."

"I checked 'don't know' for every college except Allegheny," Dr. Cook said, adding that he gave his own institution an outstanding rating.

U.S. News & World Report releases its annual rankings of America's top colleges today, under attack as never before by college officials who accuse it of using dubious statistics to stoke the intense, even crazed, competition among colleges and universities for students and prestige.

Still there is little sign that the rankings race is diminishing. While more than 60 presidents of liberal arts colleges signed a letter over the last few months pledging to stop participating in the most heavily weighted component of the magazine's rankings - the survey of colleges' reputations - virtually none of the most select and highly ranked colleges signed on.

Indeed, the rankings are so influential, two decades after they were started, that one clause in the contract of Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, promises a $10,000 bonus if he can raise its standing. Frustrated college officials and high school guidance counselors say the magazine is not only reporting on how colleges perform, but is also changing their behavior as they try to devise gambits to scurry into the top ranks.

Take admissions. A college's acceptance rate, or the proportion of applicants it admits, counts towards its rank, and the more selective the college is, the better.

So some colleges try to increase the number of applicants they receive - and turn down - by waiving fees and dropping requirements. Some send out applications by e-mail, with most of the student's personal information already filled in. Others send out persistent e-mail appeals to high school sophomores, with breathless subject lines like "Time is running out."

"It's pumping up the numbers, it's making colleges look more selective, and it's contributing to the frenzy," said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College. "What if we become ridiculous and just go out to a shopping mall and hand out applications?"

Then there is that survey that asks college officials to rate other colleges and universities. The survey, which counts for 25 percent of a college's overall ranking, is the most heavily weighted factor.

That has spurred colleges to send glossy promotional brochures and updates on new programs to high-ranking officials at other colleges around survey time in hopes of impressing them. Despite such efforts, college officials say they suspect that some in their ranks deliberately downgrade their competitors to try to drive down their showing.

"I see where the temptation comes," Dr. Cook said. "So rather than be tempted to game the system, I think it's better to drop out."

The magazine's editors say that the rankings provide a valuable service and that rather than blame the magazine when colleges manipulate their numbers, people in higher education ought to look in the mirror.

"We get blamed for a lot of things that are demonstrably not our responsibility," Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News, said in a interview. "I find it a little shocking, given the problems in the higher education world these days, that this is the thing, U.S. News, that these presidents choose to focus on."

Editors at U.S. News acknowledge anecdotal evidence that some colleges try to affect the rankings, but they insist it is not widespread. The editors say they have added myriad safeguards over the years from specific definitions of what counts as an application to adding questions that can sniff out fudging.

Some colleges used to drop athletes' SAT scores from their computation of incoming students' scores in order to increase their averages and make their institutions look more selective, Mr. Kelly said.

In response, U.S. News helped to create common definitions with organizations like the College Board so that data reporting would be standardized and harder to fudge.

Still, critics say that the magazine, which does not verify information submitted by the colleges, bears some responsibility for the litany of tactics that colleges employ.

Read full article at The New York Times
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