Colleges Build Web Sites to Enable Campus Comparisons, Sans Ranks

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In the wake of U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of “America’s Best Colleges,” it’s become almost a ritual to read in newspaper op-ed pages a small voice of dissent: College rankings are bunk. They hurt education. There’s got to be a better way.

It’s that time of year again, except that this time around, the voice is louder. Long-established college associations and a nascent national organization are either building or planning five free, Web-based college-information platforms that may diminish the U.S. News lists’ influence among high school counselors, students, and parents.

The information templates now under construction or considerationRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader differ in how much and what kind of information they aim to provide, but they all have one thing in common: No rankings.

“Products can be ranked, but education can’t—it’s a process,” argued Lloyd Thacker, a former high school counselor and the executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Education Conservancy. “The biggest problem with U.S. News’ rankings is that they are ranking—making fine-point distinctions that are not supported by any scientific research.”

That’s not to say that the sudden rush among college associations to gather information in a reader-friendly, online format stems only from officials’ dissatisfaction with the magazine’s ranking system. Most of the four other projects now under way were launched with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education in mind, if not in direct response to it.

The commission’s report, issued last year, recommended that more colleges disclose students’ test scores, graduation rates, and other information in a consumer-friendly form as a condition of accreditation.

“There has been concern in the higher education community that Congress would feel compelled to impose reporting standards,” said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, or NAICU, an organization of private higher education institutions. “Rather than let the government determine what those variables should be, what you’re seeing is associations working to provide that information.”

NAICU plans to launch Sept. 26 its University and College Accountability Network, an online platform with information on 500 of its 900-plus members—including Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities, all longtime inhabitants of the upper reaches of U.S. News’ list.

A Crowded Field

Other Washington-based college associations launching like-minded efforts include the Association of American Universities, which represents 60 U.S. and two Canadian research universities, as well as a joint effort by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, representing more than 430 public colleges and universities, and the 216-member National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which represents public research universities, land-grant institutions, and state-university systems.

The Annapolis Group, a network of 121 independent liberal-arts colleges whose presidents meet each year in Annapolis, Md., is also in the early stages of building a college-information Web site.

“We’re all taking slightly different approaches,” said Mr. Pals. While NAICU takes no position on ranking colleges as U.S. News does, he added, it chose not to rank colleges, because focus groups of high school students and their parents didn’t mention rankings among the data they most wanted to see.

“If we had been hearing from our focus groups that what they were looking for was already in U.S. News’ rankings, there would’ve been no purpose in doing this,” he said.

David E. Shulenburger, the vice president of academic affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, said that the Voluntary System of Accountability, its joint project with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, is not intended to steal thunder from NAICU, or from any of the other information Web sites now on the drawing board.

“I think at this point we’ve got a little intellectual competition as to what benefits students the most,” he said. And that, he added, is not a bad thing.

Sick of the ‘Frenzy’

While Mr. Shulenburger and other association leaders mentioned the Spellings commission as having prompted their efforts, almost all of them also cited Mr. Thacker’s push.

Mr. Thacker founded the nonprofit Education Conservancy three years ago, after about a dozen years of college-admissions work at several universities and some 17 years as a guidance counselor at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.

Watching the pressure ratchet up on high schoolers to forgo any activity not explicitly intended to get them into an Ivy League school, he said, “it got to a point that I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Mr. Thacker quit his counseling job and self-published a book, College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, a second edition of which has been released by Harvard University Press. He also started speaking out against rankings at colleges.

Since then, he’s collected pledges from 64 college presidents to boycott the U.S. News rankings and not to use the rankings in promotional material for their institutions.

“Lloyd has played an interesting part in this as a catalyst—to take this lingering dissatisfaction and channel it more substantively,” said William G. Durden, the president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and the chairman of the Annapolis Group subcommittee studying alternatives to U.S. News’ rankings.

Campus Comparisons

In response to pressure from the federal government and college officials’ dissatisfaction with U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, several organizations have launched efforts to provide their own online college-information platforms.

While college leaders have grumbled about the rankings since they were introduced in the 1980s, Mr. Durden said, now “the switch is from grumbling about U.S. News to doing something about it. We have the information—let’s use it ourselves.”

That’s the idea behind a meeting of college representatives and other interested parties that Mr. Thacker is holding at Yale on Sept. 25—a first step, he said, toward creating what he hopes will be “a Web-based, robust research engine that will be free for all and useful to people.”

While he’s glad to see other organizations’ eagerness to provide college information, Mr. Thacker said he’s worried the sudden profusion of acronym-heavy options will be more confusing than a single online resource to which all colleges and universities contribute information.

“We don’t want to do alphabet soup,” he said. “The strength will come in how comprehensive this will be.”

Rankings’ Staying Power

For all of their efforts, though, the organizers of the college-information projects may face an uphill battle in trying to drag the admissions process away from rankings, some high school counselors think.

Patrick J. O’Connor, the director of college counseling at the private Roeper School in Birmingham, Mich., and a past president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, said many newly minted counselors have had no coursework in college advising.

Given their largely ad hoc, on-the-job training, and their ever-larger student caseloads, he said, “I would imagine that many of them see the rankings as a tool to help them in their first few years to sort things out.”

Scott White, the director of guidance at the public Montclair High School in Montclair, N.J., and a 25-year counseling veteran, said he’s encouraged by the rankings-alternative movement, but he’s not sure the idea will take off.

“Having an effective list is important if it’s read and respected, but it’s going to be hard to get it off the ground,” he said. “U.S. News has really set the bar, not necessarily in terms of the quality of the information, but in terms of what people are reading.”

For his part, U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly said in an interview that he’s not worried about recent declines in the number of colleges participating in the annual survey of institutional reputations among college officials. This year, only 51 percent of colleges chose to rate peer institutions—a decline of 17 percentage points since 2000.

And Mr. Kelly said the new surge of potential competition won’t affect what his magazine does.

“I have doubts that it’s going to be as valuable as something that puts apples next to apples and says, ‘This one is bigger than this one,’ ” he said.

PHOTO: Lloyd Thacker, a former high school counselor, is leading a backlash to a national magazine’s influential system of ranking colleges and universities.
—Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP

Vol. 27, Issue 03, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: September 12, 2007, as Colleges Build Web Sites to Enable Campus Comparisons, Sans Ranks
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