Eckerd says no to rank system

The college's leader says U.S. News' methods are flawed, so the school won't participate.

Published June 21, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Eckerd College said Wednesday it will stop participating in U.S. News & World Report's annual college rankings, the go-to guide for many campus-bound students and their families.

Eckerd president Donald R. Eastman III is among dozens of university leaders forgoing U.S. News, after complaining for years that the magazine's ranking methods are flawed.

U.S. News looks at factors like graduation rates and student-faculty ratios, but gives considerable weight to a college's selectivity and its reputation among its peers. That, critics say, swings the best rankings to Ivy Leagues and exclusive, wealthy private colleges.

"This is an exercise based on no scientific validity, just to sell magazines, " said Eastman, whose college this year fell into U.S. News' unranked third tier.

The Annapolis Group, representing about 120 independent liberal arts colleges, decided this week to develop its own data system for families researching colleges. Most of the 70 or so presidents at the meeting, Eastman included, also said they will no longer participate in the annual U.S. News ranking exercise.

"The idea that one can measure a college experience and educational experience with a number on a scale from one to 300 or one to 3, 000 is one of the most absurd notions we have, " said Christopher Nelson, Annapolis Group chairman and president of St. John's College in Maryland.

Nelson said the Annapolis Group wants to create a searchable online database with information on tuition and financial aid, degrees offered, class sizes, retention rates, campus life, demographics, sports and religion. The goal is to help people find the college that suits them.

Rollins president Lewis Duncan, one of the dissenters at the Annapolis Group's meeting, said U.S. News' broad circulation makes it a good starting point for students and parents.

Rollins was ranked the No. 1 Southern master's-level university both this year and last.

U.S. News each year asks colleges to fill out lengthy questionnaires covering things like retention rates, selectivity and faculty resources. But the greatest weight for a college's rank, 25 percent, is based on a "peer assessment survey" in which university leaders evaluate each others' institutions.

"I've always thought it was nonsense, and I've never filled it out, " said Eastman, a former administrator at the University of Georgia. "It becomes, 'Oh, well I've heard Harvard is pretty good.' "

In the spring, 24 liberal arts college presidents signed a letter blasting U.S. News for misleading data that "degrade" the college search process. Last month, the group sent letters urging hundreds of their colleagues across the country to stop filling out the U.S. News peer evaluation survey.

The movement comes as the federal government considers creating its own searchable database of college data that would allow users to come up with personal rankings based on priorities.

Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News, said through a spokeswoman that he welcomes any effort to get more information out to the public.

He stressed that the private colleges' lack of participation will not hinder the annual college issue because most of the information used to is available publicly.

The 2008 edition hits the shelves in mid August.

Staff writer Joseph Schwartz and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3403.