COLUMN ONE : Academia Rankled by Rankings : The power of college guides has some school officials calling for boycotts while others are lobbying the guide-makers in hopes of winning better marks.

Share via

He may be one of the most powerful figures in American higher education, but Mel Elfin doesn’t have a Ph.D., teach a single course or hold office hours on any campus.

Still, two high-ranked college officials a week, on average, pay their respects to--and sometimes lobby--this irascible, bushy-browed editor who collects tabloid headlines and gives himself haircuts at his desk.

The reason: Elfin is in charge of the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of more than 1,400 colleges and universities.


One of the magazine’s hottest sellers each fall, its annual “America’s Best Colleges” list is jokingly referred to as academia’s “swimsuit issue.” And while the decade-old guide is considered the most influential, it is just one in a burgeoning pack of rankings that has administrators climbing the ivy-covered walls.

There are guides for Christian students, Jewish students, environmentally correct students, disabled students. One popular book rates campus life in restaurant-review style--five stars for the best--and another irreverent tome belittled one university as a “high school with ashtrays.” Money magazine computes “best buys,” while the Business Week guide evaluates “customer satisfaction.”

Experts say these guidebooks and rankings--with their commentaries or compilations of test scores, graduation rates and class sizes--have become a powerful tool in the new scholastic marketplace. As never before, students and their parents are using them to comparison shop.

And that has eroded the control of the intellectual Brahmins, who for decades have determined the academic pecking order but who now must pay attention to the consumer demands of parents and students trying to figure out what constitutes a quality education.

“For us, this is a very fundamental change and it’s a very difficult change,” said Peter Likins, president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. “. . . What’s hard for us in higher education is just being judged by these outsiders. They’re not academics and our long-treasured tradition is one of internal evaluation.

“Any college that believes the rankings are of no consequence is blind to realities,” he said. “They have an influence on how parents and students behave. They have an influence on how alumni feel about their alma mater.”


Not to mention a big effect on how educators act. The Assn. of Universities and Colleges in Canada is trying to block Maclean’s magazine from publishing its fourth annual ranking this November. The group passed a resolution calling on member schools to boycott requests from Canada’s leading newsmagazine for institutional statistics--a call to arms that many schools have ignored.

Closer to home, college officials lobby, whine and bicker--and widely suspect each other of misreporting statistics to look good. The president of Marshall University in West Virginia chastised colleges that “juggle their numbers” for the guides, an ethical lapse he compared to misusing research funds.

“Reminiscent of Faust’s selling his soul to the Devil, some of us in higher education are peddling our souls in exchange for rankings in a magazine’s promotional efforts,” J. Wade Gilley fumed in a 1992 article for Academe magazine.

It doesn’t take a doctorate to figure out why, given the competition in higher education for good students.

“High school counselors tell me that students come into their offices with a page torn out of (U.S. News), saying ‘This is where I want to apply’ and it is School No. 5 as opposed to School No. 6,” said B. Ann Wright, dean of enrollment at Smith College in Massachusetts. “It’s the power of the vertical column.”

Among Orange County universities, UC Irvine has garnered a share of these rankings. U.S. News’ 1994 report listed UCI among the top 25% best universities, and the 1992 report dubbed it one of four collegiate “up-and-comers.”


UCI’s dance major was included among the nation’s top 17 most highly recommended dance programs, according to The Performing Arts Major’s College Guide, said UCI spokesman Scott Nelson, and its drama program made the guide’s list of 13 most highly recommended graduate drama majors.

The 1993 Gourman Report, another annual national overall listing, listed six UCI programs in humanities in their top 25 in both undergraduate and graduate courses of study.

Some of the reports that have cropped up are more unconventional. UCI was listed among the country’s worst dozen universities in June for its “extreme left-wing bias” by Accuracy in Academia--a Washington-based group of conservatives. UCI was in good company: prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale also made the list.

“Some faculty members put a lot of stock into various national rankings, and others don’t think much of them,” Nelson said. “But you always want to have your name mentioned in a positive light.”

“College ratings are great if they’re based on what’s most important to your institution,” said Cal State Fullerton spokeswoman Judy Mandel. “In the case of Cal State Fullerton, we’d love to be rated on criteria that include quality of faculty, mission, accessibility, cost, our graduates and our community impact.”

Chapman University officials said they want to get into the national spotlight, and U.S. News rankings could help.


“We consider the rankings of some importance, and probably a lot of people out there use them as a guide to choosing a school,” Chapman spokesman Jeff Coulter said. “So of course we’d like to see ourselves ranked as high as possible.”

Officials face pointed questions from lawmakers, trustees and alumni if a school gets mediocre reviews or slides lower in the rankings. When Lehigh didn’t even show up in the early U.S. News lists, Likins said, he heard about it at alumni gatherings in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Schools that score well, however, trumpet the rankings. Berea College printed T-shirts and bumper stickers after U.S. News picked the 1,500-student Kentucky school as one of the best in the mid-1980s. A spokesman said applications tripled overnight.

Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., went one better, renting a billboard to announce its sixth-place finish in a U.S. News category one year.

“I fear what’s going on here,” lamented Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, the umbrella association for 1,600 schools and higher education groups. “There are too many instances in which institutions brag about raising their profile from 45th to 26th, not choosing to recognize that it says absolutely nothing about the quality of the institution. It might have been terrific at 45 and not any better at 26th, but if it comes up at 65 next year, you’ll die by the sword.”

How did it get so crazy?

Many academics say they are victims of the public’s lust for lists--and publishers that pander to it. Increasingly cost-conscious administrators are using more objective benchmarks to measure their school’s efficiency. And a drop in the supply of traditional students has created a buyer’s market.


But some say it was academia’s pomp, not circumstance, that caused the trouble.

“We’re as much at fault here,” said Patrick P. Terenzini, associate director for the National Center on Post-Secondary Teaching, Learning and Assessment at Penn State. “Colleges and universities have been very reluctant to share much information with the public . . . . There’s a good deal of image management going on.”

Higher education’s carefully coiffed image, preserved in postcard-perfect brochures churned out by admissions offices, was mussed up during the last decade by revelations about fat administrative salaries and dubious research as undergraduates were shoveled into crowded lecture halls.

Yet most agree that academia’s biggest transgression was of the purse: It kept hiking tuition even as jobs dried up during the recession. With exclusive schools crossing the $100,000 threshold for a bachelor’s degree, the average price of a college education has doubled since 1983, rising 2.5 times faster than the cost of living.

As sticker shock set in, students and their parents couldn’t find hard numbers and comparisons to help make the second biggest investment in their lives. Thus grew the power of rankings and guides.

“I envision this as a Consumer Reports approach to higher education,” said Elfin. “People can get all the information they need on the comparative merits of a $200 VCR, but there was nothing that would give them the comparative merits of two institutions, where it costs $80,000 to $100,000 for a degree.”

That changed in the early 1980s with a proliferation of guidebooks, the staid encyclopedic tomes traditionally relegated to the reference shelves of high school counselors.


Wright from Smith College traces the phenomenon to a 1982 guide compiled by then-New York Times education editor Edward B. Fiske. He introduced a five-star system to rate the academic, social life and quality of life of selected campuses.

“It was the first that set colleges against each other in a way that had not happened before, in terms of who was the best and who was not the best,” said Wright. “I was at the University of Rochester at the time and I was one of those people who were horrified because we were given three stars, which was in the medium range.”

Other guides emphasized commentary and sassy attitudes. The Princeton Review Student Access Guide to the Best Colleges, for instance, began featuring lists with blunt titles like “Campus like Eden/Campus like Cleveland.”

All told, an explosion in guidebooks has created about 30 titles catering to all kinds of student tastes, said Joe Hollander, an editor at New Jersey-based Peterson’s, one of the nation’s oldest guidebook publishers.

But nothing caused more academic anguish than when the rankings bug spread to periodicals such as Business Week, Money and U.S. News, say college officials. With their built-in base of millions of subscribers, the popular press became a fearsome wild card at a time when admissions offices were competing for students.

Business Week has turned the tables on the nation’s top business schools by surveying hundreds of recent graduates and corporate recruiters for “customer satisfaction.” When the first of its biennial lists came out in 1988, it was a shocker--dark horse Northwestern University came in first, while favorites like Stanford and the University of Chicago limped in at ninth and 11th, respectively.


The list “induced an identity crisis” among some elite management schools, even causing one to revamp its curriculum, Stanford and Emory University researchers have concluded.

No guide, however, seems to have captured consumer attention--or frayed academia’s nerves--more than U.S. News. With an appeal to Middle America, a circulation of 2.2 million and a “news you can use” philosophy, the magazine has become something of a gold standard in college rankings, educators say.

When it began in 1983, U.S. News simply polled 500 college presidents and declared Stanford, not Harvard, the nation’s best major university, one of several categories it used. Using reputation to assign rankings was no different than the method used in 1925 when a Midwestern college president published the first rankings of Ph.D. programs based on the opinion of experts in each field, said David S. Webster, associate professor at Oklahoma State University, who has studied the history of academic rankings.

College presidents launched salvos against the U.S. News rankings as a “beauty contest” and a blatant attempt to sell magazines. Thirty of them vented their spleens as guests of the magazine at a dinner in January, 1988, said Elfin, U.S. News’ special projects editor who took over the rankings that year.

In Elfin, college presidents faced a veteran of Washington journalism who also is familiar with the back lots of higher education. Married to the chair of nearby Hood College’s political science department, Elfin is a dissertation away from getting his Ph.D. in contemporary American history from the New School for Social Research in New York.

Yet his style doesn’t fit into the noblesse oblige world of academia. His office is lined with tabloid headlines, and instead of polite understatement, he bowls through conversations with pointed interruptions.


Educators admit Elfin has earned their “grudging respect” for keeping an open ear and working with them to refine the ranking methodology. After the heated 1988 dinner, for example, U.S. News moved quickly to incorporate more objective data from the schools, rather than to rely solely on reputation.

Since then, Elfin and in-house statistician Robert Morse have reworked the formula to produce 14 categories, where schools are ranked according to financial integrity, faculty resources, student admissions and alumni satisfaction, as well as reputation.

Obtaining the information is a months-long task, with the magazine sending out 13-page questionnaires asking for 80 different “data points,” such as average SAT scores for entering freshmen and size of endowments.

College officials grumble about the growing blizzard of surveys, one reaching 140 pages, from guidebook publishers. A Berkeley researcher estimated it took the campus one staff position, or $50,000 worth of time, to fill out all the surveys--a cost of up to $50 million when extrapolated over all of higher education.

Yet educators say they can’t risk the statistical consequences of silence, and each year about 100 college presidents, deans or other officials travel to Washington to take a seat on Elfin’s red couch for a little schmoozing.

Joining the parade on a recent morning was Robert T. Conley, president of The Union Institute, a non-traditional Cincinnati school that provides “distance learning”--independent study courses taught by computer--to 1,700 students throughout the country.


Framed by tabloids headlines screaming “Dead Infant Fed to Dog” and “Fergie Throws Up!” the pink-faced Conley strained to describe the institute’s philosophy of allowing “the learner to interact personally with his own education” before Elfin seized control with a barrage of questions.

Others have arrived at Elfin’s doorstep for some more decidedly aggressive lobbying, and often propose changes in methodology that will help their institutions.

Case in point: Claremont’s Harvey Mudd College, which was named best “smaller comprehensive school” by U.S. News in 1985 only to disappear from the top lists. School officials came to see Elfin and ask the magazine to create a category for engineering specialty schools. When the list debuted in 1991, Mudd’s name was on top.

A few weeks ago, the dean of Georgetown University Law School, concerned that her school wasn’t rated any higher than 13th in the graduate school lists, invited Elfin for a tour before handing him a two-page critique of the methodology over lunch. She’ll have to wait to judge the results until the magazine publishes its ranking of graduate schools in the spring.

Oklahoma State’s Webster said he has “nothing but contempt for college presidents who troop through” Elfin’s office, but the editor and others are more concerned about the continual allegations about schools that try to “game the system” by cheating on their statistics.

One of the tricks is to inflate SAT scores by not counting those of some athletes and “special admits,” many times low-scoring minority students admitted through diversity programs, say officials. Another is to reduce the student-teacher ratio by counting faculty on leave or those who are retired but have a campus office, they said.


Elfin’s staff has tried to eliminate the problem with careful wording, but some of the officials who come calling insist it continues.

Just recently, Elfin said, the magazine got a jolt when it obtained a confidential American Bar Assn. report that showed a third of the 176 accredited law schools covered in the graduate school ranking had reported different admissions numbers to the magazine. Most discrepancies were minor. However, one low-ranked California school--which U.S. News wouldn’t name--told the ABA it had admitted 55% of applicants while telling U.S. News the number was 34%.

“And these are the people to whom we entrust . . . our ideals, our heritage and our young,” Elfin said about allegations of cheating in general. “Not only do they fib, they’re in here ratting on others who fib.”

Times staff writer Alicia Di Rado contributed to this report.