Colleges Play the Rankings Game

The American public loves rankings, from sports teams to restaurants, and colleges are no exception.

At the week's end, U.S. News and World Report will keep up its 20-year tradition and unveil its annual rankings of the nation's higher education schools.

Will it be Harvard again in the No. 1 slot or will there be an upset?

Many in the academic realm, as well as prospective college students and their parents, keep a close watch on these rankings.

Some educators, though, question the value of a ranking system, saying it only adds to the competitive nature of college applications.

"These rankings drive us at the high school level off the wall," said Jim Conroy, a college counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. "I think you can rank a car -- its gas mileage and how quickly it stops, things like that you can rank. To rank a college, which is a living, breathing thing, is wrong."

At New Trier, the slogan is, "College is a fit to be made, not a prize to be won," Conroy said.

Counselors advise students and parents that the emphasis should be on what a student desires from his or her college experience and not the school's ranking.

On Wednesday, the U.S. News and World Report sent an e-mail to hundreds of colleges informing them of where they stood on the list.

That information will be kept secret until Friday at midnight when the list is made public.

The magazine maintains that its rankings are meant as just one tool to help provide high school seniors the right information to pick a school.

"We have never said that rankings should be the sole factor in selecting a school," said Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News and World Report. "We stress that they should be just one part of the information kit."

The magazine uses a scoring system based on a number of factors, including a school's admissions scores, graduation rates, alumni giving and faculty resources.

Some academic institutions, like Reed College in Portland, Ore., believe that the scoring system doesn't accurately measure learning and the daily experience at a particular college.

For the last 10 years, it has opted not to provide the U.S. News and World Report the statistical information needed.

"We felt as if the flavor of our institution isn't being captured by rankings like this," said Paul Marthers, Reed College's dean of admissions.

For colleges that participate in the rankings, a large part of the concern is the inherent pressure and competition to be better than the previous year's rank, he said.

"I think you'll have a hard time finding a dean of admissions who doesn't think rankings are good," Marthers said.

At Washington University, which was ranked No. 11 last year by U.S. News and World Report, school administrators say the rankings are indicators of academic strength.

University admissions officials say they see the rankings as a way to attract students from all 50 states, instead of just from their home state of Missouri.

The ranking seems to have done that.

The number of applicants has gone up, with more than 22,200 students applying for the 2006-07 school year to ultimately be narrowed down to a freshman class of 1,300.

As with any numbers game, though, whatever goes up can go down -- and what goes down can come up.