America's 'Best' Colleges?

High school seniors who applied for early admission to the colleges of their choice inevitably made several nervous trips to check the mail last month. Those applying for general admission will follow in their footsteps out to the mailbox come March or April.

These students have spent months trying to make themselves stand out on applications. But many of them have at least one thing in common - their interest in U.S. News & World Report and other magazines, such as Money, that have jumped on the college-ranking bandwagon.

Each September U.S. News's "America's Best Colleges" issue flies off the shelves. Prospective students read it. Currently enrolled students read it. College presidents read it. Parents read it. Everyone, it seems, reads the rankings.

In some ways, that's a problem. Too many people look at magazine ratings as more than a general guide. College administrators say these annual articles create a "pecking order" that's unreliable and often inaccurate but that influences hundreds of thousands of students each year.

In a recent survey of 160 presidents, provosts, and admissions deans at small private colleges, more than 92 percent said the "America's Best Colleges" issue doesn't paint an accurate picture of their schools. They argued that the methodology that's used changes regularly and that statistics are often reported differently by different colleges. At the same time, 90 percent said the ratings are important - as a marketing tool.

This isn't to say the information provided by U.S. News and others is uninformative or worthless, simply that what's most interesting - insights into what makes a college unique, not just the "best" - may be overlooked or misrepresented.

A new group called Forget U.S. News Coalition, made up of students from some 25 public and private schools, suggests that the magazines continue to publish the informative stuff but drop the ranking. A good idea, but we're quite sure that U.S News and the others won't be too eager to tinker with anything that consistently flies off the shelf.

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