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Interview with Bob Morse of U.S. News College Rankings Report, Part III

How much would you estimate schools spend to lobby or market to improve their rankings?

The ranking system is sort of lobby-proof. Talking to US News isn’t going to improve your ranking because they are based on quantitative numbers, a formula, but certainly schools send out brochures, try to raise their profile among other presidents and deans because of the academic survey. I think it‚ it’s more subtle how they are spending money to improve in the rankings. With Washington University or UNC, they may be spending money to improve student services so they get a higher graduation rate. The way to improve in the rankings is through the institution itself, not by lobbying US News, which is actually a good thing because students benefit from that.

How has your formula changed over the last ten to fifteen years?

At the beginning they were 100% reputation, and today they are 25% reputation and 75% quantitative data, so that is certainly one change. We’ve de-emphasized admissions data to some degree. We’ve switched the weight to output like graduation and retention rates. We’ve also dropped the yield rate from the admissions data.

Which colleges, in your opinion, will be making a jump in the rankings?

University of Rochester has been falling recently. For the next few years, the rankings are going to be impacted by the recession. States have been cutting the budgets of the some of the major public schools. It’ll be interesting to see whether the UCal schools can maintain their position. It’s unclear whether the tuition increase is going to be enough to cover the budget cuts. They may start taking more out-of-state students. The UCals take almost no out-of-state students, so there is talk that they are going to take a greater percent of out-of-state students because their tuition is so much higher. It’s going to be harder for in-state students to get into the public universities from their own state as those schools accept or enroll a greater proportion from out of state as a revenue enhancer.

If the UC schools drop in the rankings, who comes up?

Some of the privates who have been managed [constructively] may be able to maintain their budgets. Some of the private college endowments have really fallen. The way these rules work, you have to average your endowment spending over x number of years, so that will have an impact on their budgets. There are rules: you have to spend 4 or 5% of your endowment each year, so if your endowment is shrinking, that’s why schools like Harvard have to cut back. The point is, it’s hard to know how all these cutbacks and trends are going to impact the rankings because it’s happening in both public colleges and private colleges in different ways.

I know that schools have tried to emphasize their alumni giving. That’s how schools game the rankings, by boosting their alumni giving rate. We’re not counting the average contribution; we’re counting the average portion of alumni that are giving…but it’s not a heavily weighted factor.

How do you see the ranking system changing over the next few years?

Using the web, we can create a use-your-own-ranking. Students can develop their own ranking, so if they think the student-faculty ratio is more important than U.S. News does, they can weight our factors using their own weights to come up with where they stand. We’re going to build more interactive features on our website, trying to take advantage of what the internet offers to students.

I think maybe within a few years there will be more outcome measures, more ways of viewing the student experience: student engagement or student learning. That’s what is missing from the rankings: some indicator of what’s going on in the classroom, or how much students have learned.

Do you think that U.S. News would benefit from factoring in what students do after graduation?

Definitely. But [right now] it’s only spotty data. We measure what happens after graduation in our MBA rankings and our law rankings because we have placement data, career outcomes for the most recent class, but there’s nothing like that available at the undergraduate level. Yes, if there were data like that, it would be pretty powerful.

Have any notable schools called or emailed to contest their rankings?

Schools call and contest their rankings all the time. The schools don’t really lobby us…rather schools call about their rankings. A couple years ago we had something about UC Davis saying that they had misreported some data, and they called up all upset about it. What you find, the very top schools like the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton’s….they will try to stay above the fray. They don’t send out press releases and they’re not going to be in contact with us on the rankings.

A lot of it is, Why [do] they rank the way they do, or, Explain how the rankings work, or,where’d you get that data – because in some cases if they’ve assigned filling out the surveys to some other office, then when the rankings come out, a senior person in the president’s office says, Well that can’t be right. Of course we can prove that we got it from the school. Sometimes you can call up two or three offices at the same school and get slightly different answers to the same questions. So we face that when we collect data from schools.

This concludes Top Test Prep’s in-depth interview with Bob Morse of U.S. News & World Report. Stay tuned for some more great interviews with college admissions experts.

Ross Blankenship is an education and admissions expert who helps students and media organizations better understand the college rankings and US News and World Report. Call (800) 501-7737 to speak Ross or another member of his admissions expert team.

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