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Lobbying for a better U.S. News ranking

In a story that publishes today, I discuss an annual ritual that's little-known outside college presidents' offices.

Presidents -- and provosts and admission deans -- get buried in promotional mail every winter and spring: glossy magazines, president's reports, desk calendars, research dossiers and pretty much anything else that conveys the general message that the college sending the mailing is thriving.

The mailings aren't that much different than the stuff sent to college seniors. College presidents say the brochures are sent to impress other presidents, who, it is hoped, will then give the sender a good Peer Assessment rating on the annual survey sent out in March by U.S. News & World Report.

One-quarter of the ranking is based on the reputation survey, which asks presidents, provosts and admission deans to rate dozens of like institutions on a 1-to-5 scale for overall undergraduate academic merit.

Many colleges participate in the promotional mailings. It's hard, though, to get a college official to acknowledge participating. The mailings are circumspect -- I reviewed a boxload and found not one direct reference to the upcoming U.S. News survey nor a single plea for votes.

The issue seems to be the controversial nature of the survey itself. College officials routinely criticize the U.S. News rankings as arbitrary and unfair, and several dozen colleges have pledged publicly not to fill out the Peer Assessment. At the same time, few schools miss an opportunity to brag about a good ranking. In that climate, it is understandable, perhaps, that few institutions want to broadcast the fact that they are lobbying survey voters.

My story centers on a group of college presidents, mostly around the Washington region, who choose not to engage in promotional mailing, for the same reason they do not complete the survey, as a gesture of protest.

"I don't see any real harm in folks sending out these pieces, but I also don't think it's a good use of institutional resources," said Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College in Indiana, one of the leaders in the 2007 boycott of the reputation survey. He said Earlham does not participate in promotional mailings.

I personally saw only a small sample of mailings: a few dozen brochures sent to Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire, and a smaller stack sent to St. John's College President Christopher Nelson. Needless to say, the small group of dissenters in my article can't be the only ones not participating. I would imagine a good number of colleges skip the promotional campaign for lack of funds, or because they just don't think it will work.

(Bob Morse, who runs the rankings, notes that no one's ever found evidence that a marketing blitz has yielded a higher reputation score. The scores change relatively little over time and, according to various accounts, may be most influenced by changes in admissions selectivity, or by previous years' ratings.)

One group of colleges that apparently opts out of promotional mailings is the group at the top of the heap. I asked David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, about this, and he said that neither his college nor the others grouped at the high end of the rankings seemed to play the promotional game.

He said, in an e-mail,

"You are right that at this time of year (purely by coincidence, I am sure!) I start to get all sorts of glossy materials about how great various colleges are. It doesn't do much for me; I am busy enough that virtually all of them go straight to the circular file.

"Pomona has never done this, nor in my experience do other "elite" colleges. Whether it is a good assumption or not, we take the position that other colleges should know about us and that to move to broadcast publicity would, if anything, cheapen our "brand.""

Oxtoby did, however, direct me to this promotional YouTube video from the president of Macalester College. It is a must-see.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  May 2, 2010; 9:36 PM ET
Categories:  Marketing , Rankings  | Tags: America's Best Colleges, U.S. News peer assessment, U.S. News ranking lobbying, U.S. News rankings, US News brochures, US News lobbying campaign, US News reputation survey  
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As long as there are rankings, there will be people and companies trying to work the system to increase theirs. However subjective, skewed or inaccurate, these rankings seem to get a lot of play in the press and they come from a source that people consider unbiased and trustworthy. There are many stories about colleges making their applications easier or waiving the application fee to get more applicants, making the college look more selective - which boosts the ranking. There are also schools that have gone out of their way to offer full scholarships to high achieving students so they'll attend the college and bring up the the school's average SAT and GPA - another way to boost your ranking. The mailings are just another example. Too bad colleges can't just spend their money and time on the quality of education and getting more students who start to actually graduate.

Posted by: dawn-wise | May 3, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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