Opinion Piece 6/10/07
Article in The Patriot-News
Sunday, June 10, 2007
BY WILLIAM G. DURDEN
I recently joined 11 other college presidents who signed a commitment refusing to complete the U.S. News & World Report peer assessment survey and use the magazine's rankings in our promotional and marketing efforts.
The decision to join this group was not made lightly.
Rather, it reflects a growing concern about the variables and weightings used to determine the rankings -- particularly the highly subjective peer assessment survey that accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the measure -- and the business model U.S. News relies on to arrive at its conclusions.
Ever since U.S. News began ranking America's colleges and universities in 1983, it has relied almost solely on the institutions themselves to provide their data to the magazine. As the popularity of the rankings grew, colleges and universities responded like lemmings, scurrying frantically to assign valuable staff time and institutional resources to provide the magazine with the data it requested of us.
Think about it.
Each time we ask our institutions to gather data, each time we, as presidents, sit down to fill out the peer survey (even if it is to check the "Don't Know" box), we are, in essence, working for U.S. News. We are cheap labor and, thus, reduce significantly the cost of producing the magazine's most popular issue.
The irony, of course, is that, with the exception of the peer assessment survey, much of the data we scramble to provide to U.S. News is already publicly available. Why we might ask, doesn't U.S. News pay its own researchers to cull this data to arrive at a methodology that ensures uniformity, accuracy and, therefore, comparability among institutions -- something it does not now do?
Why doesn't it rely on the wealth of information provided in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System data base and request access to our Common Data Set via a computer link -- access I believe many institutions, including my own, would be willing to provide?
The answer is simple. It is far cheaper and a much better investment for U.S. News to ask higher education to do the work. After all, it has been a highly successful business model for nearly 25 years.
Many business models, however, contain the seeds of inevitable evolution. In this case, America's colleges and universities can, in fact, be the agents of change in the U.S. News ranking strategy. Although educators nationwide rightfully lament that we can do nothing to prevent U.S. News from publishing its rankings, we have forgotten that, as the key providers of the data, colleges and universities are powerfully poised to alter the playing field by doing something we should have done decades ago -- embark on a new transparency effort that will provide easy-to-find, understandable, and free data to our prospective students and other constituencies.
It is time to move beyond the U.S. News rankings. It is time for us to disengage from the exploitation of a business model with which we have been, perhaps unwittingly, complicit for decades. It is time for us to demand and assist in the development of new measures that provide greater transparency into the variety of intent and accomplishment in American higher education.
WILLIAM G. DURDEN is president of Dickinson College.