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College presidents plan 'U.S. News' rankings boycott

Deriding the ratings system as a 'beauty contest,' dozens of schools have refused to fill out surveys from the newsweekly.

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A revolt is brewing among college presidents against the influential college rankings put out each year by U.S. News & World Report.

Dozens of schools have recently refused to fill out surveys used to calculate ranks, and efforts are now afoot for a collective boycott.

Colleges have complained in the past about the rankings. But recent events have rallied opposition, including the tying of presidential pay to ranking at Arizona State University and accusations by the president of Sarah Lawrence College that the magazine threatened to use hocus-pocus data to stand in for average SAT scores at the school.

At the heart of the matter: A college degree is increasingly expensive, and students and parents want to make informed decisions. But educators worry that the rankings have made college a commodity, creating a false impression that schools can be easily compared and stressing out students who want only the "best" schools.

"This increasing interest in measuring everything – these so-called science-based measures of [educational] outcomes and the like – seems to me to be so misguided that it's now captured the imagination of the leadership in higher education," says Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., who heads an association of 124 prestigious liberal arts schools. "This is a bad way of talking about an education. [Students] aren't consumers shopping for a product."

The boycott of the U.S. News rankings could be extended in coming weeks as a draft letter makes the rounds of academia. The letter, formulated by a dozen college presidents and an education activist, calls for others to join them in neither filling out the magazine's survey form nor touting rankings in marketing materials.

The "reputational survey," as it's called, asks college administrators to rank the quality of hundreds of schools on a one to five scale. The data – which critics call a "beauty contest" – account for 25 percent of the overall U.S. News rankings.

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