“I am not a beautiful person. I am not Brad Pitt,” says Bob Morse, stating the obvious in his office at U.S. News & World Report. A 66-year-old grandfather who wears a black Casio watch and old school wire-rim glasses, Morse speaks in a near monotone about his work as a lifelong data cruncher, a man who no doubt has influenced the youth of America more significantly than any fleeting matinee idol.
He talks a dull game, yet for 27 years, Morse has helped shape the enrollments and reputations of the nation’s colleges with a ranking system that has become more watched, respected and criticized than any other. The U.S. News rankings — released Tuesday for the 30th year — have steered the spending of billions of dollars as students and parents agonize over their higher-ed choices.
“I personally don’t feel any superpowers,” Morse says, but he acknowledges, “I’m aware it’s a heavy responsibility. . . . We’re like the 800-pound gorilla of higher education.”
There are other college evaluation guides, but the information and stats that Morse and his team compile land with the greatest heft, thanks in part to longevity. They gather data in categories such as class size, graduation rates, faculty resources and student success to assign rankings for best national and regional colleges and universities, best public schools, best value, best online programs, best liberal arts schools, and so forth. Nearly 1,400 are ranked in all.
The “Best Colleges” release provides the site’s biggest Internet traffic day of the year, according to the magazine, drawing hits not only from its American audience but also increasingly from China, India, Arab states and other nations.
The college rankings are U.S. News’s most recognized brand, which makes the unassuming Morse a celebrity at the once-struggling publication. U.S. News ditched its print magazine a few years ago and now says it’s rebounded as a profitable Web site.
It still prints special editions, such as the 2015 edition of the rankings guide, which runs 345 pages, thicker than recent issues of Cosmo and Oprah magazines. Flipping through the ads, higher education can begin to seem like a massive corporate enterprise that churns out typhoons of marketing hype. Colleges even get a one-day advance notification about their rankings so they can prepare press releases.
Morse offers a visitor “the inside view of the rankers’ life” in his office, which feels entirely nondescript. But what about that stack of sturdy white plastic cups on his bookshelf? They look suitable for a keg party. Turns out the cups bear his face and the magazine’s logo — a promotional gewgaw distributed at an admissions-officers convention a few years back where U.S. News had a booth.
“You want a cup?” Morse offers sheepishly. “Well, maybe you don’t.”
Stashed around the Georgetown headquarters are 6-foot-tall cardboard cutouts of Morse, which conventioneers are known to pose with.
Morse started at the magazine in 1976, a new father looking for a steady job to replace a temporary one at the Treasury Department. He didn’t want to be a journalist. He signed on with the magazine’s “economics unit,” which monitored the consumer price index, economic forecasts and more — an early iteration of the “data-based” reporting so in vogue today.
The first college ratings article ran across eight magazine pages and relied on a survey of several hundred college presidents who were asked to evaluate schools nationally. Ever since, despite the methodology, results at the top rarely vary.
Back in 1983, Stanford came in first, Harvard second — followed by Yale and Princeton. This year, the order is: Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Columbia (tied with Stanford and the University of Chicago).
Morse took over the ratings entirely in 1988 after a year of running the department that oversaw the project. “It’s in my DNA to analyze numbers and do rankings,” he explains. Today he holds the title chief data strategist.
“His charm is his inscrutability,” says U.S. News editor Brian Kelly. “He speaks the language of data.”
It’s always been interesting work, Morse says. And it’s especially “energizing” and “exciting” on a day like Tuesday, he adds in an utterly non-excited way.
Some two dozen staffers gather at a morning debriefing to assess stats coming in on the ratings launch. They talk analytics and measurement tools and performance outcomes. There’s talk of BaseCamp and Omniture. They wear T-shirts representing their schools: Bates (No. 19), Penn State (No. 48), Wheaton (No. 56), Michigan State (No. 85), Ohio (No. 129).
“What’s that number in the upper right hand corner?” asks Morse, meaning the ticking figure on the projection screen that at the moment says 372,213. It’s the number of viewers currently on the site, he’s told.
Traffic is running 2,200 megabytes per second, reports the director of engineering, Matt Kupferman. That’s 25 times the volume the site’s server usually handles.
His gray sweatshirt boasts Lehigh University.
“Forty this year,” he says.
Indications are that the site’s hits will beat last year’s. The group gives Morse a hand.
By the way, Bob Morse holds a BA in economics from the University of Cincinnati — ranked No. 129 nationally this year — and an MBA in finance from Michigan State (No. 35 for MBA programs ).
But forget all these numbers. After decades of doing what he does, Morse will tell you this: “It’s not where you went to school, it’s how hard you work.” A dull old saw, but true.
This story has been updated to accurately reflect a three-way tie in the fourth place university rankings.