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As Teens Mull College Choices, Counselors Urge Caution in Interpreting Rankings

There is too much hype around college rankings and high school students need some perspective, say counselors who help in the college-search process. As students decide where to apply between now and the end of the year, it's a good time to look beyond the lists and consider closely what factors really matter to them as individuals. 

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has a section on its website with its views on rankings and information to help students understand the methodology used in various lists published by U.S. News & World Report, Princeton Review, Kiplinger, and others.

Nearly 55 percent of high school counselors and 40 percent of college admission counselors surveyed by NACAC said rankings create confusion for students and families, according to the Arlington, Va.-based professional membership organization.

"Rankings can be misleading or beneficial depending on how you look at them. At face value, the number next to each institution tells you very little. What is the difference between #1 and #2? Between #77 and #78?," the NACAC website says. "If you build a list of colleges based on their location in a rankings list, the process will start to resemble a beauty contest, lacking the ability to predict complex qualities. You will use words like 'best' or 'smartest,' but those terms mean very different things to different students."

Many counselors surveyed say the U.S. News & World Report's rankings have increased in prominence and offer misleading conclusions. NACAC's message to students and families: "Do not rely on rankings alone when choosing a college."

The NACAC website provides links to the methodology used in various rankings and urgues students to develop their own criteria when evaluating colleges. It suggests students make a list of the items important to them and assign a percentage to each one. Students can then use the College Navigator website run by the National Center for Education Statistics to build their own list of schools with side-by-side comparisons.

NACAC encourages students to look at its State of College Admission Report for more information about the college admission process.

David Hawkins, the director of public policy for NACAC, said that rankings are not likely going away so it's important for students to have good information about what they mean.

"College rankings do seem to be gaining visibility," in recent years, he said in a phone interview. "They are so influencial they are bound to be in for closer inspection."

With the resources on its websitie, NACAC says it hopes to plant the seed that a ranking is just one organization's opinion and students need to decide what really matters to them.  Adds Hawkins: "Only you can determine the best fit college for you."

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