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US News college rankings big despite criticism

world Updated: Sep 05, 2011 02:19 IST
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Bob Morse is a wonk, a number-cruncher, who works in a messy office at a struggling publishing firm in Georgetown.

He’s also one of the most powerful wonks in the country, wielding the kind of power that elicits enmity and causes angst.

Morse runs US News & World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide, the oldest and best-known publication to rank US’s premier colleges. The annual release of the rankings, set for September 13, is a marquee event in higher education. Some call it the academic equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Colleges broadcast US News rankings on websites and in news releases, tout them in recruiting pamphlets, alumni magazines and “Dear Colleague” letters, and emblazon them on T-shirts and billboards. Institutions build strategic plans around the rankings and reward presidents when a school ascends.

“US News doesn’t advertise the rankings,” Morse said in a recent interview at the publication’s headquarters.

“The schools advertise for us.” Morse, 63, has endured for two decades as chief arbiter of higher education’s elite.

No one can stake a credible claim to academic aristocracy without a berth on the first page of a US News list. He is to colleges what Robert Parker is to wine.

College presidents dismiss the rankings. Privately, college administrators fret about rankings and ponder how to move up. Presidents and deans telephone US News several times a week to ask “why they rank the way they do,” Morse said. He usually takes the calls himself.

At industry meetings, Morse answers his critics in a halting monotone. “His manner is disarming and, in its own way, very effective,” said Ted Fiske, a fellow traveller in the college-guide business, who rates colleges but does not rank them. “It just sort of takes the air out of the room.”

Twenty-eight years after the release of the first US News lists, Morse and his publication dominate the college-ranking business they spawned. Last year’s publication drew more than 10 million Internet hits on launch day.

( In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content, visit www.washingtonpost.com)

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