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College and university presidents from across the country are joining forces with President Gerhard Casper to post data about their institutions on the World Wide Web. Their action is in response to growing discontent with the way U.S. News & World Report collects and compiles data for "America's Best Colleges," its hottest-selling issue.
Last week Casper took the latest shot in a war of words that has been waged since last fall. Stanford, he announced, would no longer participate in the most subjective part of U.S. News' data collection. Now prospective students and parents can gain direct access to data about the university on the web (www.stanford.edu/home/statistics/). Clark University in Massachusetts, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota and Bryn Mawr College are among the institutions making plans to post statistics on the web.
U.S. News obtains data for its "America's Best Colleges" issue, which is published each fall, by sending out a "reputational" survey to 4,200 college presidents, deans and admissions directors. The magazine asks these administrators to rank all institutions in their category. Stanford officials, for instance, are asked to rank all national universities, assigning them to one of four tiers. This reputational survey accounts for 25 percent of an institution's overall score.
In addition to the reputational survey, the magazine sends questionnaires seeking data on an institution's students, faculty and financial resources to 1,422 accredited four-year schools. The editors then use that data to measure what they describe as "other attributes of academic quality." Each of these attributes selectivity, faculty resources, financial resources, retention, alumni giving and value added is assigned a percentage of the overall score as well. The institution with a score of 100 is ranked number one, and so on.
Last September, Casper wrote a private letter to James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, criticizing the rankings and requesting that some of the magazine's methodology be changed. He met with Fallows in December and waited for a response. After months of considering his options, Casper decided to take matters into his own hands. He called the web site a "first step" toward an alternative to U.S. News & World Report rankings.
For the past few years, Casper has declined to answer the reputational survey. This year, he will be joined by Provost Condoleezza Rice and James Montoya, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid. The university will continue, at least for now, to answer the questionnaire that asks for objective data. In addition to posting the raw statistics U.S. News requests, the Stanford site also will include information the magazine has so far not included, such as the number of faculty who are members of national academies.
"Many colleges and universities, including Stanford, have begun to consider withdrawing from the annual U.S. News survey on the grounds that its methods of ranking institutions are misleading and inaccurate," Casper said in a statement announcing the decision. "At the same time, Stanford and other institutions wish to make useful information widely available and welcome objective reports about our programs. Because there is not yet sufficient consensus on an alternative method of delivering information, Stanford will, this year, continue to submit objective data though not subjective reputational votes to U.S. News."
Casper invited other colleges and universities to join Stanford in posting standardized web pages offering data about their institutions. He noted that managers of Yahoo! had expressed willingness to provide a central link to these pages.
Jerry Yang, chief "yahoo" at the Silicon Valley company, said, "In general, the information is out there; we point to it free of charge. If other universities want to use Yahoo! as a platform, we'd be happy to do it."
Officials at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., have not endorsed a boycott; however, the university will post its data on the Web by the end of the week. "I know that my president and provost strongly applaud Casper's statement," said Kate Chesley, Clark's communications director. "We agree with putting as much information as possible for prospective students and parents up on the web. The Stanford page does that marvelously, and we're going to do the same thing," said Chesley, who noted that one of the key issues is making sure colleges and universities use the same criteria for the data they post.
Alan Stone, president of Alma College in Michigan, says data about his institution are already available on the web. Last fall the college decided not to participate in the reputational survey. In January, Stone urged officials at other liberal arts institutions to join Alma's reputational boycott.
"We made the decision in the fall not to participate in the beauty contest part of the survey, and we suggested that other national liberal arts colleges do the same. The only credibility the survey has is the fact that the presidents participate," Stone said. Of the 160 colleges in Alma's category, he noted, about 20 have stepped forward and said they would not participate this year. "I think the movement is going to grow," added Stone, who hopes to make his case at several upcoming education association meetings.
Jon Rivenburg, acting dean of admission at Reed College, said Casper's move may signal the beginning of the end of U.S. News' ranking methods. Since 1995, Reed has refused to provide information to U.S. News or Money magazine, the two publications that rank schools. Reed does submit data to Peterson's and other publishers that do not rank institutions. "As soon as they stop getting full participation, it weakens their quote unquote comprehensive methodology," said Rivenburg, who praised Casper's decision. "I think it's a thoughtful move on Stanford's part and I think other institutions will see the merit of not cooperating in the future."
Even Fallows gave the decision a thumbs-up. "Anything that any information source does to make data available, I view as positive," Fallows said, adding that prospective students and parents should get as much information from as many sources as they can and not rely on any one source when making a decision.
U.S. News Special Projects Editor Al Sanoff echoed those sentiments, but added that he hopes the information institutions post will be objective and not simply designed to cast institutions in the most positive light. "People in higher education don't like the idea of outsiders, especially non-academics, evaluating them. But I think that given the cost of higher education today, families need all the information they can get. Why this has somehow gotten under the skin of people in higher education is curious," Sanoff said.
According to Casper, some university presidents are considering having the information that is posted on the web verified by outside auditors to ensure the data's credibility. Law School Dean Paul Brest said the web approach offers a way to provide data without raising questions about whether an institution is withholding information.
"It strikes me as a terrific idea and one that law schools should consider," said Brest. In U.S. News' March 10 issue, dubbed "America's Best Graduate Schools," the Stanford Law School was ranked number 4, but quickly moved up one notch when the magazine discovered an error in its calculations.
Sanoff conceded that U.S. News would "make some modifications in the way we present the data to better contextualize it." He said the magazine hopes these changes will address some of the concerns raised by its critics in higher education. However, he made it clear that the magazine would not abandon its rankings tradition.
Nick Thompson, vice president of the Associated Students of Stanford University and national coordinator for the Forget U.S. News Coalition, or FUNC, said his group is calling for other institutions to follow Stanford's lead. "I think it's a big step in the movement to make U.S. News irrelevant. I think if [Casper] decided just to not send in data this year, it could have gotten into a messy debate that would have obscured the real issue. The issue is that the rankings are seductive but not helpful," Thompson said.
By Elaine Ray