The independent news organization of Duke University

Rankings' critics question peer index

With the release of new U.S. News & World Report college rankings last week, education officials at Duke and across the country have renewed their criticism of the ratings' largest component, a survey measure of academic reputation.

The magazine sends a survey every year to college presidents, provosts and deans of admission, asking them to evaluate the academic quality of other schools.

The survey gave Duke a 4.6 academic quality rating again this year--roughly midway between "strong" and "distinguished." Both Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag and Provost Peter Lange dismissed the score.

The reputational score counts for 25 percent of a school's rating, making it the single largest component of the rating. U.S. News officials downplayed the importance of the survey. "It's the largest component, but not the only component," said Richard Folkers, U.S. News director of media relations. "You don't have to have a big reputation score to rank high."

However, the majority of college presidents appear to disagree. According to a poll conducted by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 70 percent of presidents said they felt the reputational scores carry too much weight in the ranking, and 38 percent said they would do away with the scores altogether.

Lange said distinguishing between schools' reputation with precision is impossible.

"It's kind of a false accuracy," Lange said. "I believe in broad groupings, and I think that pinpoint estimations are kind of useless."

Many officials, including Guttentag, said they declined to respond to the reputational survey because they felt ill-qualified to judge the academic quality of other schools.

"I think to a certain degree [the responses are] going to be based on limited knowledge," Guttentag said. "Beyond a relatively small number of fairly well-known universities, it's hard for me to see how the people answering the surveys can make a distinction."

Daniel Gallagher, dean of undergraduate admissions at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., suggested that faculty members, high school guidance counselors, employers, deans of graduate school admissions and even college coaches would be better qualified to judge colleges than the officials surveyed by U.S. News.

"They're asking people who aren't really in a position to judge other institutions," he said. "[Presidents, provosts and deans of admission] are probably the least likely group to know about other institutions."

In addition, officials may be inclined to bias the rankings in favor of their schools due to the hypercompetitive nature of college admissions. The AGB poll found that 7 percent of presidents admitted to downgrading ratings of rival schools in order to make their schools look better.

According to the U.S. News article accompanying the ranking, 64 percent of the 4,095 college officials who received questionnaires responded to them. Some at smaller schools felt compelled to respond to the questionnaire to secure inclusion in the ranking.

"It was ludicrous," said Aline Rossiter, dean of admissions at Teikyo Post University in Waterbury, Conn. "We're stuck between a rock and a hard place. If we don't respond to the surveys, we're not in."

College officials also reported that the subjectivity of the reputational scores was exacerbated by the fact that many respondents did not know what criteria they should use to rank schools.

"There was no effort to define what 'reputation' is," Rossiter said.

U.S. News, for its part, staunchly defended its survey and the reputational scores, giving no indication that pressure from colleges would cause the magazine to eliminate that or any component of the ranking.

"We're not doing this to try to make the colleges happy," Folkers said. "We're doing this as a service to students and their families."


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