Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Something Rank in the Newsroom

I was happy to read in today's New York Times that presidents of liberal arts colleges will no longer participate in the annual college ranking survey conducted by U.S. News and World Report.

This national issue is relevant for my local blog because West Michigan is home to several liberal arts colleges that have done well in rankings, Calvin, Hope, and Aquinas among them.

It might seem like a bad PR move to stop providing survey data to a major media outlet that annually provides this resource for students and their parents to make college selections. The issue could be seen as one relating to reputation as well as a key driver of applications. However, I think the move is good for several reasons:

  • There is strength in numbers. A majority of this group of 80 liberal arts presidents has indicated they will not respond to future surveys. This prevents any single college from looking like it is bitter for being low on the list.

  • It's the right thing to do. As academic leaders would know, the annual survey lacks validity. It does not really measure what it says it is measuring. The survey asks for information that may not actually affect the quality of education a student will get. In that sense, the survey is bad PR by not showing all relevant information appropriately.

  • It's calling the bluff of US News. This is only one of an annoying number of "Best......" lists the magazine puts out. It's no secret that US News is always third place among the three national newsweeklies. Has been since I visited it's cozy offices as a journalism intern in 1985. The rankings are less news than they are a market driven attempt to sell something. But that leads to my last point:

  • People don't "buy" it. The annual college ranking issue may have good sales, but people don't really buy the information in a figurative sense. I know from my work in higher ed administration that college students surveyed place this and other rankings low on their list of influences for choosing a college. Other factors like having the right program, affordability, personal visit to campus, word of mouth from other students, and even sports success and mainstream media coverage weigh in before the rankings. Of course, there's also the view books, CDs, and Web sites the colleges' PR departments put out to high schoolers.

    The college presidents say they will put together their own criteria and possibly have a third party gather it for a more meaningful list. US News' editor has said he would welcome that. Either way, I applaud colleges in this case of ignoring the media. It's the better PR move, for both ethical and strategic reasons.
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