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EDUCATION with Student News

Many American colleges balk at U.S. News rankings

Story Highlights

• Rankings include the "reputation survey," which is filled out by college presidents
• It asks academic leaders to rate other colleges; results count for 25% of rankings
• Critics claim survey isn't a valid basis for judging the quality of education
• U.S. News editor: "It is a way for students to get intangibles about colleges"
From Janine Brady
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(CNN) -- If presidents of some of the nation's top liberal arts colleges get their way, they will no longer be included in the U.S. News and World Report's influential collegiate ranking system.

At issue is the "reputation survey," a part of the ranking system that is filled out by the presidents of colleges included in the survey.

Presidents from some of the nation's leading private and liberal arts colleges met in Annapolis Tuesday to discuss a possible boycott. Approximately 80 presidents and 71 academic deans of the nation's leading liberal arts colleges attended the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, an organization made up of 121 private and liberal arts colleges.

Todd Wilson, director of communications for Sarah Lawrence College -- which is among those not participating in the reputation survey -- called it "a collegiate beauty contest that is not a valid basis for judging the quality of education."

While the group did not call for an overall boycott of the rankings system, according to its newly named chair, Kate Will, the majority of members indicated their intent to stop participating in the reputation survey, which produces what she says is "not educationally valid research."

A letter was sent out last May by Lloyd Thacker, executive director of The Education Conservancy, and 12 college presidents to hundreds of their colleagues asking them to "refuse to fill out the U.S. News and World Report reputation survey and refuse to use the rankings in any promotional efforts on behalf of their college or university."

Thacker told CNN that "rankings have reduced students to consumers, education to product, and gaining admission into college a high-priced game that has to be played."

The letter has acquired 22 new signatures since it was sent out May 10, and it received overwhelming support in Annapolis on Tuesday.

The survey conducted by U.S. News and World Report asks college presidents and top academic leaders to rate other colleges they know based on their opinion alone, and their responses then count for 25 percent of the school's ranking.

William Durden, president of Dickinson College -- which was ranked 41st by U.S. News and World Report for liberal arts colleges -- was one of the original presidents to sign the letter. He told CNN that he believes the reputation survey "rewards established patterns only, without any credence for schools who have made improvements over the years."

The chief editor of U.S. News and World Report, Brian Kelly, defended the survey.

"The reputation survey is very standard," he said. "While I recognize that the results are subjective, it is a way for students to get intangibles about colleges."

Kelly estimates that, on average, half a million prospective students read U.S. News and World Report, so not submitting ranking information could hurt the recruiting efforts of colleges, particularly those that are not very well known.

"We are happy the group did not decide to do a blanket boycott," he said, "but if enough officials don't submit surveys about less-known schools, those colleges and universities are likely to fall off the ranking list."

Members of the Annapolis Group agreed that refusal to use the U.S. News and World Report rankings should be accompanied by creation of an alternative way for prospective students to get information about a variety of colleges. They said they will work with other organizations, such as the Council of Independent Colleges and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, to provide prospective students with comparable information.

Tony Pals, spokesman for the NAICU, has said the association is in the process of making a template of Web-based information collected through focus groups with students and parents on different variables about individual colleges.

While The Annapolis Group consists of only private and liberal arts schools, Will told CNN that public schools are interested in the topic as well. "I don't think there is anyone in higher education who is not thinking about this issue," she said.

Doug Bennett, president of Earlham College -- ranked 65th by U.S. News and World Report for liberal arts colleges -- told CNN that "one ranking number does not represent anything about educational quality."

It is the general consensus of the group that the ranking system causes anxiety in students about getting into a top-ranked school when that might not be the best school for that particular student.

Said Will, "There's a college out there where every student can flourish and grow. Students don't have to go to the wealthiest or top-ranked school to get a good education."

CNN's Caleb Silver contributed to this report.

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