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Interview with Bob Morse of U.S. News & World Report Rankings, Part II

Have you seen any questionable practices put in place just so a college can increase its ranking?

There was an event in the summer that came to light, even though I think it was debunked: that the president of Clemson  – they were not voting honestly on the peer assessment survey … but we have safeguards to prevent strategic voting.

Some schools have put in ways to boost their application count. They may have a one or two or three part application, and reject a student on the second part. They may not have had any intent to seriously consider the student.

When they report their data, some schools leave out minorities or certain types of students … they’ll have left out special cases who are beneath their SAT or ACT profile, so they may look like their scores are higher than they are. It’s unclear why they actually do that, because they may be inhibiting people from applying. I haven’t seen any specific names.

How does a college break into the top rankings?

It’s very difficult. It’s relatively easy, if you‚ are right beneath the top half, to break into the top half, or to move up somewhat if you’re in the middle of the pack. If you’re in the middle of the pack, it’s easy to move up somewhat, and college presidents have a reputation doing that, like Clemson or Northeastern. There are many schools like Arizona State, University of Arkansas, to name some who haven’t been that highly ranked, but because their profile isn’t that high, they’ve moved up into the bottom of the top half.

It’s very crowded at the top. It’s really hard to change your academic profile-  become another Harvard, Yale, or Princeton – for a number of reasons. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. It’s probably easier now in some ways than it used to be, because schools are becoming more international. There is a much bigger population in the US or the world, so the top 1 or 2% of SAT scores is bigger. Places like Stanford don’t have enough spaces for the top 1 or 2% of students. You can tell by their rejection rates. They’re rejecting people with a 1600, they’re rejecting valedictorians, they’re rejecting – the saddest part of the whole process is high school students who have played by all the rules – they’ve created the perfect application packet, and they can get rejected, whereas 20 years ago the odds of you getting into those top schools was greater. There’s a pool of these students who have to go somewhere. That’s why Duke and MIT and Washington University in St. Louis and USC – their academic profile is much higher than it used to be-  their admission profile. In some cases they’ve used scholarships, but in other cases there are just more people out there.

What are some of the major trends you’ve noticed in the rankings?

When we first started doing the rankings, they were ignored in some ways by college presidents. Now it’s become an acceptable thing among some college presidents to have as a goal: improving in the college rankings. This is at places such as Northeastern and Arizona State and Clemson, so the acceptance of the rankings as an academic benchmark, that’s certainly been one trend.

Another trend along the same lines is that many schools brand themselves by how well they do in our rankings or other rankings. When the rankings first came out, they wouldn’t consider doing that. It’s not that we were asking them to do it, but that speaks to the school’s needs of having an external force telling the public they’re good.

Another trend: the schools have gotten way more sophisticated in understanding the rankings and how they work. I think the public has benefited because there didn’t used to be a lot of higher education data out there. [With] the amount of higher ed data that exists, schools have gotten much better at producing information on themselves, so they’ve responded to the consumer’s need for comparative higher educational data.

Have some schools rebelled against the rankings?

Reed, Oregon, St. John’s in Annapolis and its cousin schools-  those are some of the … biggest rebels (against the college rankings). They refuse to turn over their statistical data, or they refuse to fill out certain parts of the survey, so they’re taking this supposedly principled stance. They think that being against the establishment is going to be appealing to their particular applicant pool. I think that’s the main reason they do it.

It’s fine if they don’t want to do that, but what the schools have to realize is that there’s so much public, available data. They have to turn in essentially the same data to the government, so we’re able to get the same information from other sources. There’s been a movement among certain liberal arts colleges to not participate in the peer surveys. Amherst, Swarthmore, Reed, Oberlin. Lloyd Thacker has a movement called “college unranked.”

How should students use the rankings?

Nobody, a student or a parent, should ever use the rankings as the sole basis for deciding to go to one school. It should not be the most important factor.

The UCLA freshman survey asks freshmen to choose what factors have been very important in choosing to go to [their] school. The rankings themselves are not a top factor, but certainly they’re more important among minority groups or international students. For people who are going to more selective schools, the rankings are more important. I understand why: if you’re coming from overseas, you want to go to a brand name, because that’s going to be important when you come back to the country. To some parents, when you’re paying, as the price of college has gone up, people want to know if they’re getting their money’s worth, trying to analyze the best value, so that’s another factor in why the rankings have become a more powerful source.

I think it’s a minority who uses the rankings as a primary factor, but some do. Admissions counselors or high school counselors have told stories about parents who come in and are effectively saying – I only want my Johnny or Jane to go to a school above this above this college ranking…

More to come …

Ross Blankenship is an education and admissions expert who specializes in prep school, college and graduate admissions, and who is an expert on the US News and World Report College Rankings. To read more about Ross Blankenship, visit TopTestPrep.com or call (800) 501-7737.

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