The Rankings Rebel
Hanging above Lloyd Thacker's desk in his office in downtown Portland, Ore., is a framed check for the first order of his self-published book criticizing the concept of college rankings and the admissions mania that surrounds them. In an ironic twist, the check—made out for $45.40 for two books, plus shipping—is from U.S. News & World Report.
U.S. News, the publisher of what is perhaps the most closely watched of the college rankings, is the magazine that Thacker, a former high school guidance counselor and college admissions officer, has taken on as his primary target in his battle to change the way people think about colleges. And while Thacker and others have raised the issue before, the recent willingness of some liberal arts colleges to embrace his cause has made Thacker the point person for one of the most intense conversations to arise in higher education in recent years (see BusinessWeek.com, 05/07/07, "The College Rankings Revolt Heats Up,").
Thacker, who markets his ideas with the zest of a traveling salesman and the zeal of a missionary, is the founder and director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit which, according to its Web site, is "committed to improving college admission processes for students, colleges, and high schools." Thacker's small organization—it has one other staffer, an administrative assistant—this month scored its biggest coup yet: At this month's annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, a consortium of 125 leading liberal arts colleges, the vast majority of the 80 college presidents in attendance agreed to stop participating in surveys used to help compile the U.S. News rankings.
A One-Man Mission
The announcement was a sweet victory for Thacker, who recalled sitting nervously outside the meeting while the rankings issue was debated. His one-man mission to debunk the rankings has gone further than he ever thought it could go, he said. "It's amazing. What blows me away is why didn't someone else do this?" he said in a telephone interview. "There must be somebody else much more qualified than I am who could have captured this interest and delivered it with some kind of social clout."
Thacker's foray into the college admissions world was not something he originally envisioned back when he was a college student majoring in oceanography at the University of California at San Diego in the early 1970s.
Back then, Thacker spent his spare time working in a lab at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, playing the guitar and harmonica in local clubs, and surfing on Malibu Beach. His interest in education was sparked when he got an internship with the dean's office and become involved in an effort to evaluate and challenge the existing curriculum. The effort was successful, and Thacker's interests gradually shifted from the study of sea creatures to effecting change in the classroom.
He took a job at the education opportunity program at UC-San Diego following graduation, helping to recruit minority students for the school. After receiving a master's degree in political science he returned to college admissions, working in the admissions office of the University of Southern California in the early 1980s, and later at Pacific University in Portland. His primary task was to come up with a marketing plan to attract more students to the school. It was a time when college rankings were just starting, and colleges began to realize they needed to market themselves in a more aggressive manner. "My concern began there. I was worried that marketing was going to be embraced wholeheartedly without due regard for the value of a liberal arts education," he said.
Turning His Frustration into a Book
That feeling was reinforced as Thacker spent 17 years as a guidance counselor at the elite Jesuit High School in Portland, watching as his students became more stressed and obsessed with college rankings and getting into what they perceived as the top schools. By 2004 he had reached his boiling point, eyeing college admissions as multibillion dollar industry taken over by the rankings and college guides, test preparation companies, consultants, and student college advisers. "The whole idea that you can reduce the value of college and education as a process to some kind of numerically ordered system of evaluation is just preposterous," he said.
Backers of college rankings, including BusinessWeek, which ranks business school programs, argue that they provide valuable guidance for students and parents (see BusinessWeek.com's Debate Room, "Throw the Book at College Rankings").
When a colleague suggested to Thacker that he write a book that outlined his frustrations with rankings, he jumped at the idea. He collected essays from 12 college presidents and admissions deans, including representatives from schools such as Dartmouth and Harvard, who voiced their concerns about the rankings system. He then combined these essays with his own concerns and self-published the book College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy. He began lecturing around the country and selling books out of the trunk of his car. He sold 5,000 copies on his own before Harvard University Press picked up the reprint rights. Thacker says that about 12,000 copies have been sold.
"An Incorrigible Punster"
Thacker has become so obsessed with the college rankings industry that he lies awake in bed at 3 a.m., dreaming up new words to describe his efforts to debunk the U.S. News ranking and the rankings industry in general. He has created his own gangster-inflected vocabulary for the effort, complete with words such as "ranksters," "ranksteering," and "studenthood." A sign in his office alerts visitors that they have entered the domain of an "incorrigible punster," he says.
Thacker says his crusade hit a tipping point in January when he gave a talk in Florida to a group of liberal arts college presidents from the Council of Independent Colleges. In the middle of his lecture, titled "Ranksteering: Driving Under the Influence," one of the presidents in the audience raised her hand and asked him if he could send a letter to the council's members to assess interest in having colleges disengage from the rankings. It was a turning point for Thacker, he said. "At that point, the meeting changed to not what can we do, but how can we do it," Thacker said.
The past six months have been a whirlwind of appearances at academic conferences, on TV shows, and at college admissions events, as Thacker's movement has gone from a grassroots effort to one embraced by leaders of top liberal arts colleges from Barnard to Kenyon. There are now dozens of college presidents who have pledged not to fill out the survey or promote the U.S. News rankings in their promotional material. He has been so frenzied that he once forgot to pack his suit pants for an interview on the set of the Today show. (He went on wearing his trademark Levi's 505 jeans). He lives with his wife and two sons, ages 15 and 24, in Portland, but he has had little time to spend with them recently. He still pays himself the salary he earned while he was a high school guidance counselor, he said.
U.S. News Fights Back
"I'm going to be 53 a week from today and I wish I had more energy," he said last week. "My 15-year-old son says to me, "I wish I had my old dad back at times" Thacker said. "It isn't easy, and I'm not paying myself a lot of money, but interest is growing and I'm getting a lot of support."
Doug Bennett, president of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., said that Thacker has found a way to tap into the concerns of educators about the college admissions process. "It's always interesting to be in a room when he talks to an audience for the first time," Bennett said. "They sense his passion and he gets at the issues in a hurry. People say, Yeah, I recognize that issue.' There really wasn't anyone before Lloyd stepped up drawing together this whole nest of issues."
That's not to say that Thacker doesn't have his critics. Foremost among them is Brian Kelly, the editor of the rankings at U.S. News & World Report. He believes that Thacker is using his publication as a "convenient scapegoat."
Tilting at Windmills?
"He seems like a decent, energetic guy who I think has misguided his targets," said Kelly. "He has used us cleverly to focus his energies. There are a whole lot of other problems facing higher education than rankings, which get blamed for things that are not necessarily true."
Thacker may be tilting at windmills. Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, an independent education policy think thank, says he believes it will be near impossible for college presidents to dismantle U.S. News' ranking system—even with a proposed new assessment system put together by the schools themselves.
"I'm skeptical as to whether it will work, unless they can come up with some new data that [are] not in the U.S. News survey," he said. "The reason that the U.S. News survey is as influential as it is, is because it includes every university and it is easy to understand and comparable. That's what consumers want. It will be a little hard for those colleges to compete on that level."
But that's an argument Thacker doesn't buy. He believes that his movement has the potential to grow and eventually include public colleges, groups which he says suffer the most in the rankings because they don't have the endowments and wealth of the private schools.
He plans to release a study later this summer that will document the stress encountered by high school students during the admissions process. He's in the process of setting up a formal board of trustees for his organization and has dozens of speaking engagements booked over the next year, not to mention the possibility of a new book on the horizon. "The biggest burden is, I don't want to let people down," he said. "This is bigger than Lloyd Thacker. I'm just trying to carry the ball for a little while."
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