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Keep College Rankings in Perspective

With so many colleges to consider, it's easy to see why parents and educators rely on official rankings to help them decide. U.S. News and World Report is far better equipped than I am to sift through data from more than 1,800 colleges and universities to come up with its list of America's Best Colleges.

Yet, it's important for readers to know how the list is assembled and to keep some perspective. A big factor (25%) of the U.S. News ranking is based on a reputation survey filled out by other college presidents, provosts, and admissions deans. This spring, some college leaders are boycotting the practice of lobbying each other to improve their peer assessment, according to the Washington Post. They are chucking the traditional promotional mailings to each other, questioning the value of the investment, and calling attention to the methodology of the popular collegiate ranking.

About a dozen college presidents advocated banning the reputation survey in a 2007 letter. Now, as critics speak out and ditch the practice of swapping of glossy brochures that tout campus accomplishments, the reputation survey is under further scrutiny.

So, how does a college make it up high on the U.S. News list? The magazine says it ranks colleges for quality and value. It looks at both inputs—the quality of students, faculty, and resources—as well as outcomes—the results of the education a student receives.

The peer assessment has been part of the U.S. News ranking since the first in 1983 and is one of seven categories. Other factors include:
-Graduation and retention rates;
-Faculty resources (for example, class size);
-Student selectivity (for example, average admissions test scores);
-Financial resources;
-Alumni giving; and
-Graduation-rate performance (only for national universities and liberal arts colleges).

It will be interesting to see if the ranking methodology changes at all in light of this criticism from college leaders. In any case, it's good to remember, as the magazine cautions: Use the rankings as one tool to select and compare schools. You may hear a lot of buzz about certain schools, but brand isn't everything. There are tons of great colleges out there. What is a good fit for one student, isn't for another. When choosing a school, consult many sources and consider your own goals, finances, and what feels right.

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