Liberal arts colleges protest rankings

By Amy Lieberman

This past spring, liberal arts colleges did what they do best. Protest.In May, the Education Conservancy, an educational non-profit, distributed a letter that denounced U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings and asked college presidents to not complete a reputation survey of other schools. In June, dozens of liberal arts colleges discussed the letter and banded together, saying they would plan to not participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings.

Macalester president Brian Rosenberg was unable to attend the June summit, during which the letter was addressed. He has since declined to jump on the anti-rankings bandwagon.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Rosenberg said. “I haven’t decided what the best approach is.”

The colleges speaking out against the U.S. News and World Report rankings are represented under the Annapolis Group, a loose federation of liberal arts colleges.

Macalester is one of the approximately 125 schools and normally sends its president to the group’s bi-annual meetings.

According to the Annapolis Group’s statement, a majority of the 80 presidents attending the June summit had “expressed their intent not to participate in the annual U.S. News survey.” The statement does not act as an official decree, and member colleges may still act individually on the matter.

In the past, critics have cited the U.S. News and World Report college rankings as an inaccurate and flawed method of analyzing liberal arts colleges.

The Education Conservancy’s “President’s Letter” furthers this idea, calling for data

“which is collected in accord with clear, shared professional standards (not the idiosyncratic standards of any single publication), and to data which is required to be reported to state or federal officials or which the institution believes in accord with good accountability.”

Rosenberg said the U.S. News and World Report’s methods may lead to skewed results, but the rankings have merit.

The rankings “attempt to quantify lots of things that are not quantifiable, and assume a competitiveness among institutions that is not really the case,” Rosenberg explained. “It is the case that if Ford suffers, Toyota benefits. It is not necessarily the case that if Mac suffers, Grinnell benefits.”

Rosenberg said the rankings might be helpful to prospective students and their parents. Much of the rankings simply provide readers with objective data, such as the alumni donation and graduation rates.

Controversy aside, the rankings’ popularity remains.

“It’s their most profitable issue of the year,” Rosenberg said.

“Until people stop buying it they are going to continue to print it.

People will look at this information and will want it to be as accurate as possible. I don’t have any particular objection to providing them with data.”

Some would argue that the objective numbers U.S. News factors into the rankings reveal very little about the actual character of a school.

Emily Johnson ’11 said she looked at the rankings when considering colleges, but also understood that she couldn’t rely on them for completely accurate information.

“It’s hard to ignore their existence,” she said. “I liked Mac for what it is all about, but you still read the rankings and are subconsciously aware of them.”

Ben Hejken ’11 said he didn’t read any of the U.S. News numerical rankings, though he did consider the entirely subjective ones, like the Princeton Review, which has “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians” as a category.

But with talk of colleges misconstruing their own numbers to raise their placement in the survey, the importance placed on the rankings is made clear.

“Sometimes when you look at how other schools do, you scratch your head,” Rosenberg said. “You see schools you know have smaller endowments than ours and smaller faculties.but they get ranked higher for those and you wonder, how does that happen?”

On the other hand, there remain schools like Macalester peers Wesleyan University and Kenyon College, which have decided to withdraw their support of the U.S. News and World Report rankings. For these cases, U.S. News will still have access to basic information, such as retention and acceptance rates, but will be denied the survey college presidents fill out, which is largely based on reputation. This aspect constitutes approximately 25 percent of an individual college’s ranking, Rosenberg said.

The effects of some college presidents’ withdrawal from the rankings system are already apparent.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 51 percent of colleges and universities completed the reputational survey this year, a drop from 58 percent last year. Among liberal arts colleges, the number decreased from 69 to 56 percent.

Next spring, Rosenberg will have to decide whether or not to fill out the president’s reputational survey. For now, Macalester has already tried to deemphasize the importance of the rankings in less dramatic fashion.

“One thing we decided to do this year is to not feature U.S. News in any of our promotional material,” Rosenberg said. “In the past on the homepage we would feature our ranking.we are not going to do that anymore.”

At the same time, publicity is almost always beneficial to a school, especially one that has the initial disadvantage of being located in the quiet Midwest.

Rosenberg thinks that Macalester’s basic reputation is the same-it still holds true to all of its academic and cultural principles, but has gained more recognition for them. And that, in the end, is generally a good thing.

“There is no doubt that some of the publicity we’ve gotten has made us better known nationally,” he said. “It’s certainly been helpful.we attempt to attract a student body from across the country, so being known across the country helps.”

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