The big magazine on campus Schools: Guides to higher education abound, but U.S. News and World Report's annual "America's Best Colleges" issue remains in a class by itself.

Sun Journal

August 25, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

There is always so much anxiety about college in winter and spring. The campus visits. The interviews. The waiting for acceptance or rejection -- everything that went into deciding where to enroll for the academic year that is about to begin.

And fall brings anxiety to the schools themselves, as the publishers of college guides prepare to issue their latest findings and annual rankings that have enrolled every college and university in something akin to a competitive sport.

September marks the release of the 10th annual U.S. News & World Report "America's Best Colleges" edition, the guide perhaps best known to parents and most feared by colleges.

U.S. News and an increasing number of competitors promise to help students find the right place to go to school, and every institution awaits their word.

"It is as exact as it can be, but there is no way to devise a perfect system," says Alvin P. Sanoff, managing editor of the "America's Best Colleges" edition. "We view this as an important tool to help inform the process of the college search. We don't think students should decide on a school simply on the basis of a school's rank."

Give us a break, college officials respond. They value that disclaimer about as much as the stern warnings at the front of Cliff's Notes telling students to read the original classics.

There are numerous other guides assessing campuses, and Time and Newsweek magazines are entering the fray this week.But educators say they cannot escape the power of U.S. News' rankings -- based on mostly objective (and frequently changing) measures -- which profess to list, in order of quality, the top American colleges and universities.

This, college officials say, is nuts.

Students, parents, high school guidance counselors, even real estate agents in college towns pay close attention to each school's dips and ascents.

"You may think this is funny," says Janet Lavin Rapelye, dean of admission at Wellesley College. "There's enormous, enormous pressure out there."

What's the real difference between Amherst and Swarthmore, educators ask, or between Emory and the University of Chicago? Why rate the University of Notre Dame high when a student might founder there but flourish at the unheralded College of Notre Dame of Maryland?

"There is certainly a bogus quality about them," says Edward T. Lewis, who, as president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, touted his school's frequent designation as a bargain buy by Money magazine. Rating colleges, Lewis says, "is finally a very subjective judgment. The more mechanistic they get, the more foolish they get."

Yet the U.S. News rankings are generally conceded by colleges to be the best of the bunch -- "We've moved from overt hostility to grudging dislike," Mel Elfin, who oversees the edition, says of the response from academics.

The magazine has shifted from a purely self-selective survey of college chiefs in 1987 to one that blends reputation with statistics such as student-to-faculty ratio, cost, college spending students, and the number of faculty with advanced degrees.

Campuses are generally careful not to criticize Elfin's crew too severely, as they hope to capitalize on the warm response when they are prominently ranked.

Some campuses call news conferences, print T-shirts, even stage photo-ops with beaming students.

Of course, the strategy does have its risks.

In 1994, when Wake Forest University, the top-ranked regional university of the South for seven straight years, was bumped up to a national level and fell in the rankings as a result, public relations officers beseeched reporters not to write off the North Carolina school.

Wake Forest placed in the second quartile of U.S. News' ratings -- the top 26 to 50 national campuses. Yet despite officials' fears, alumni contributions and student applications rose.

When Kalamazoo College in Michigan did not appear on a list of top Midwestern American colleges in the mid-1980s, the school's president, David Breneman, felt the heat.

"I had alums coming out of the woodwork on that one," says Breneman, now dean of the University of Virginia's School of Education. A rival school headed that list, while Kalamazoo was in the list of "national" liberal arts colleges and with a lower rank.

"I had to write a letter to all 13,000 alumni explaining to them the arcane rules governing how they defined those groups," Breneman said.

"We went to U.S. News and for one year they dropped the regional business -- and then they went back to doing it again."

Breneman and other educators say the information provided by U.S. News and other guides offers a oft-needed antidote to the treacly brochures produced by admissions offices.

Some colleges respond to pressure a bit more than others.

Last spring, the Wall Street Journal found wide discrepancies in information provided by some schools to bond rating agencies and the National Collegiate Athletic Association and that given to U.S. News.

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