A revolt is brewing among college presidents against the influential college rankings put out each year by U.S. News & World Report.
Dozens of schools have recently refused to fill out surveys used to calculate ranks, and efforts are now afoot for a collective boycott.
Colleges have complained in the past about the rankings. But recent events have rallied opposition, including the tying of presidential pay to ranking at Arizona State University and accusations by the president of Sarah Lawrence College that the magazine threatened to use hocus-pocus data to stand in for average SAT scores at the school.
At the heart of the matter: A college degree is increasingly expensive, and students and parents want to make informed decisions. But educators worry that the rankings have made college a commodity, creating a false impression that schools can be easily compared and stressing out students who want only the "best" schools.
"This increasing interest in measuring everything – these so-called science-based measures of [educational] outcomes and the like – seems to me to be so misguided that it's now captured the imagination of the leadership in higher education," says Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., who heads an association of 124 prestigious liberal arts schools. "This is a bad way of talking about an education. [Students] aren't consumers shopping for a product."
The boycott of the U.S. News rankings could be extended in coming weeks as a draft letter makes the rounds of academia. The letter, formulated by a dozen college presidents and an education activist, calls for others to join them in neither filling out the magazine's survey form nor touting rankings in marketing materials.
The "reputational survey," as it's called, asks college administrators to rank the quality of hundreds of schools on a one to five scale. The data – which critics call a "beauty contest" – account for 25 percent of the overall U.S. News rankings.
Several college presidents suggested that they personally could evaluate only five to 10 schools – a far cry from the hundreds on the list. "We know each other through reputation, but that's different than having the kind of intimate knowledge you should have when you are making a ranking," says Robert Weisbuch, president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., who plans to sign the letter.
The intent of the administrator survey is to capture the opinions of those who are experts inside the industry, says Brian Kelly, executive editor of U.S. News. The survey asks them to rank only those schools with which they are familiar. If that number is only five, says Mr. Kelly, "well, gee, maybe you need to know some more about your competitors."
Last year, 70 percent of the reputational surveys were returned, according to the magazine. If large numbers of schools stopped complying, Kelly says the magazine could query department chairmen, high school guidance counselors, and other knowledgeable sources.
"The reason the rankings are popular is that there is a great hunger among consumers to have some tangible data to use. Some universities are unwilling to give people the information they want," says Kelly, whose organization claims to use 50,000 pieces of data to derive the rankings. "It's not enough to say that this is an unquantifiable, nuanced world, particularly when you are charging people [in some cases] $50,000 a year."
Students are desperate for honest, third-party comparisons, agrees Steven Goodman, a college admissions consultant in Washington. "In a perfect world, there would be no need for any rankings because universities would be completely forthcoming about their strengths and weaknesses."
College presidents emphasize that they do provide information to the public through the US Department of Education and their own websites.
But some expressed reservations about what happens when no data are available in particular categories.
When Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., stopped using SAT scores in its admissions process, U.S. News lost a key data point in its rankings formula. The school's president, Michele Tolela Myers, wrote a newspaper opinion piece saying that U.S. News told her it might be forced to create a number by taking the average of other schools' scores and then docking Sarah Lawrence by one standard deviation.
Kelly calls the incident a "miscommunication" and says his magazine will not use that method for the SAT score.
However, several presidents say the dust-up helped galvanize this year's opposition to the survey, a movement joined by Dr. Myers.
There's nothing wrong with sharing information, says Myers, but assigning weights to that information is "totally arbitrary." Students and parents may have different priorities, including location, diversity, and strength of a certain department – and their weights are bound to differ from those assigned by U.S. News.
Kelly says the magazine is working on employing technology that would allow users to select their own weights.
Colleges, meanwhile, are rethinking what metrics are useful and how to standardize them across higher education.
The US Department of Education, too, is pushing schools to provide more data on outputs, such as the number of students who go on to pass professional licensing exams or get advanced degrees.
"I'm hopeful that whatever comes out of this [boycott] sends different kinds of signals and messages to students, so they realize that when they are in high school, they can follow their curiosity," says Lloyd Thacker, lead author of the circulating letter and head of The Education Conservancy, a nonprofit in Portland, Ore.