U.S. News and World Report hat trick

By Harriet Watson For the third consecutive year the college has refused to return surveys to U.S News and World Report for its annual "best colleges" rankings issue. And for the third consecutive year this face-off has put Reed in the national spotlight.

The October 16 issue of Rolling Stone magazine prominently mentioned Reed in "The College Rankings Scam," an article that raised serious concerns about the U.S. News college rankings.

"[The editors at U.S. News] had never met with such a prominent school being so stubborn," wrote Rolling Stone about Reed's refusal to cooperate in 1995. "So U.S. News punished Reed College. They gave it the lowest possible score in nearly every category. The school plunged to the bottom quartile. No other college had dropped so far, so fast." Acknowledging that it was wrong to punish Reed for being the lone holdout in the prestigious national liberal arts and national universities categories, U.S. News editor Al Sanoff told Rolling Stone "Let's just say we did not handle it the right way."

Last year an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by a leader of the student government at Stanford University (and one of the founders of that student body's Forget U.S. News Coalition initiative, FUNC) praised Reed for refusing to provide information to U.S. News and advised prospective students to go to Reed if they "want to go to a school that isn't interested in selling out its education." (That op-ed can still be found on the FUNC web site, http://www-leland.stanford.edu/group/assu/func/.)

The college has repeatedly asked the editors at U.S. News simply to drop Reed from its best-colleges issue, yet they continue to include us and to harvest data from non-college, information-gathering sources. Our subsequent yo-yo relationship with U.S. News has turned into quite a spectator sport: in 1996, the year after Reed was singled out for special censorious treatment and relegated to the lowest tier in its category, the magazine trumpeted Reed in its "best colleges" press release as being new to the "top 40" tier of national liberal arts schools; and this year the college is in the second tier, even though the magazine's sources rate the college's academic reputation as high or higher than half of the top-ranked schools.

Two other schools in the national liberal arts and national universities categories--Hartwick College in New York and Wayne State University in Michigan--now join Reed in not cooperating with U.S. News.

Reed College has actively questioned the methodology and usefulness of college rankings ever since U.S. News and World Report's first best-colleges list appeared in 1983, despite the fact that Reed ranked among the top ten national liberal arts colleges that year. What do the rankings and the various criteria really say about the quality of the undergraduate experience at any given institution, and do they light the way for students and their parents through the maze of the college decision-making process?

Reed's concern intensified with disclosures three years ago in the Wall St. Journal about institutions flagrantly manipulating data in order to move up in the rankings in U.S. News and other popular college guides. This led Reed president Steven Koblik to inform the editors of U.S. News that he didn't find their project credible, and that the college would not be returning any of their surveys.

The college's decision was not without calculated risks, especially for Reed's admission efforts. To date our action has received widespread enthusiastic support from parents, students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, high school college counselors, and other college and university presidents, several of whom have confided that they wish they could refuse to participate as well. In the three years since we've stopped participating, the two standard measures of institutional vigor--fund-raising and admission--have been stunningly robust. This year's entering class, for example, has the highest average SAT score (1340) in the history of the college, even after factoring out the new recentering of those test results.

"College is a major investment for families," says President Koblik, "and consumers need helpful, meaningful information that describes what individual colleges really do, including outcomes such as fellowships and awards, postgraduate education, and job placement. Our goal is to help U.S. News and other publications fulfill this need." (President Koblik has met with the editors of U.S News and World Report twice at their Washington, D.C., office and served on a panel with one of them).

"Higher education isn't a commodity like cars or refrigerators," continues Koblik. "There aren't 25 colleges in this country that are best for everyone.

"The strength of American higher education is its remarkable diversity. Reed is not for everyone. The best college is what's best for the individual student."

Reed will continue to cooperate with several other well-established college guides, including Barron's, Fiske Guide to Colleges, Peterson's, and the College Board's College Handbook. Each of these guides attempts to describe more fully the experience, student culture, and academic environment at different schools, rather than merely generate hit-parade lists. Consistent with our rationale for not participating with U.S. News, the college also does not participate in Money magazine's college-ranking issue.

Harriet Watson is the director of public affairs at Reed College.

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