Rank this, U.S. News

RIP IT UP and throw it away. That's the advice I'm giving my fellow college and university presidents this month as the "reputation survey" from U.S. News & World Report lands on our desks. I am one of 12 presidents who wrote a letter urging colleagues to take a stand for greater integrity in college rankings — starting by boycotting the magazine's equivalent of the "American Idol" voting process.

All presidents receive versions of the reputation survey organized by region. Mine lists 181 Northern universities, including schools as different as the behemoth City University of New York's Hunter College, with more than 20,000 students, and my Trinity, a historically Catholic women's college that's now a 1,600-student university.

The survey asks me to "rate the academic quality of undergraduate programs," assigning each school a single score using a 1-to-5 scale from "marginal" to "distinguished." That I have little real information about these 181 institutions does not seem to matter to the U.S. News editors. The tabulated survey results will account for 25% of the total score they use to rank colleges and universities in the "Best Colleges" issue.

In a cover letter reminiscent of a sweepstakes mailing, U.S. News informs me that I am "one of a select group of people" with "the broad experience and expertise needed to assess the academic quality of your peer institutions." Most of what I know about these schools is through anecdotes, news stories and rumors. Should I score an institution poorly because I've heard that it has money woes? Should faculty unrest influence my vote?

This reputation survey is just part of the larger problem with "Best Colleges," a misnomer that feeds into the American obsession with celebrity, prestige and list making. What's "best" educationally for an aspiring physicist is quite different from what's "best" for a future reading teacher. But in the strange alchemy of U.S. News, the rich diversity of American higher education boils down to a few points about fame and wealth.

In addition to the reputation survey, U.S. News collects lots of institutional data that it churns through its own formulas to score each school; those scores drive the rankings. Colleges that have high faculty salaries and strong "selectivity" — meaning that they reject a lot of applicants — fare much better than those that are more efficient with resources or that accept more students.

Universities that want to move up in the rankings dare not admit more low-income students from urban public schools who might lower the retention and completion rates.

U.S. News also provides an incentive for colleges to raise tuition because that means higher "educational expenditures per student" and more "faculty resources," which together account for 30% of the score. The very consumers whom U.S. News allegedly serves are paying a hefty price for what its rankings have done to higher education.

COLLEGE PRESIDENTS need to show some backbone and stop colluding in this unseemly beauty contest.

Privately, some presidential colleagues have said they agree with my position but are afraid to act publicly for fear of upsetting trustees or alumni. But one of the essential tasks of leadership is to risk speaking the hard truth.

U.S. News and others in the college-ranking business claim that they promote accountability in higher education. But what truly betrays public trust is permitting surrogate measures of academic quality to replace real information about what students learn on our campuses. Colleges need to take back the responsibility for communicating educational results, starting with posting accreditation reports on websites.

We also need to teach prospective students and families to assess what really counts in higher education — not a magazine ranking but how well a college meets a student's learning style and academic interests, how available the faculty are outside the classroom, whether students can get the courses they need to graduate in a timely way and what professional schools and employers welcome its graduates. The best way to assess a school's quality is to visit the campus, stay overnight in residence halls with other students, meet the faculty, sit in on classes and try on the "feel" of the place.

Some of the actual best colleges in this nation do not fare well in the U.S. News survey because they do not have the wealth, big-time sports notoriety or public relations clout to influence the peer voting system.

Every March and April, in anticipation of the reputation survey, some university PR machines go into overdrive and crowd my desk with glossy brochures touting their accomplishments. A few presidents go so far as to appeal for my vote directly, sending personalized form letters extolling the virtues of their colleges. I rip those up and throw them away, where they commingle in the trash can with the U.S. News survey.