U.S. News's College Rankings Face Competition and Criticism

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

It was 1983, and lists -- of books, movies, anything -- were the rage. U.S. News & World Report, a struggling news magazine, decided to capitalize on the trend and ask college presidents to rate rival institutions.

Now, the magazine's annual list ranking the nation's four-year colleges and universities has become the center of a lucrative and controversial market of guides aimed at helping students determine where to apply.

U.S. News will release the 2008 rankings online today and in the magazine Monday. But this year's list comes amid a growing backlash. Critics, some of whom produce their own college guides, have questioned the magazine's methodology. At least 63 college leaders have signed a letter agreeing not to fill out the reputation survey, which now accounts for 25 percent of the rankings. More are expected to join in the boycott.

Over nearly 25 years, U.S. News has seen its rankings gain unprecedented influence among schools; some have changed policy and awarded bonuses to presidents and administrators who spearhead a leap in rankings, according to educators. But as the magazine's influence has grown, so has the competition.

Princeton Review has a guide. So does Fiske. And Kaplan, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., does, too.

There also are efforts to find new ways to present information on colleges and universities without ranking them. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities will introduce the University and College Accountability Network online next month with profiles of hundreds of schools.

It is not, association spokesman Tony Pals said, a direct challenge to the rankings but a response to a plea by families for better information.

Others are not shy about challenging the magazine.

"The existing rankings fall incredibly short of providing a comprehensive picture of the quality of a university or college," said Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington and Jefferson College, whose Pennsylvania school has fallen in ranking as it grew in size and became more selective.

Robert Franek, a vice president at Princeton Review and lead author of its annual survey, "The Best 366 Colleges," released a letter this week asking schools not to compare it with U.S. News. "There is the danger of lumping them together," he said in an interview. "I just want to be very clear."

So how different are the various guides?

There are lists, surveys and testimonials that shower families with statistics on freshman SAT scores, retention rates, average class size and more. U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly said his magazine presents the only college rankings based on a scientific formula -- which is proprietary -- and that the magazine shouldn't be blamed if colleges make too much of the rankings and students misuse them.

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