Rankings list 'bests' -- but rankle some Lists of various 'best' appear in college guides, magazines, online

November 30, 1997|By Samantha Kappalman | Samantha Kappalman,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Do you want to party at college? Save money? Cheer for the best teams in college sports?

The best in all sorts of categories can be found in rankings published in college guides and magazines, and even online.

Schools around the country compete for ratings in such areas as best national university, public school, private school and best buy.

Schools would prefer not to appear on some lists, and parents would rather their children not see some ratings -- but the rankings nonetheless influence high school students whose concerns include more than academics: best party school, most politically active campus, most diverse and best fraternities and sororities.

Traditionally, parents and prospective freshmen peruse U.S. News & World Report' rankings of the best colleges and universities and Money magazine's best buys, but other publications could be helpful.

The Princeton Review's annual survey of college students, "The Best 311 Colleges," for instance, includes the category of "professors suck all life from materials" -- a distinction "won" by the University of Missouri at Columbia this year.

West Virginia University was proclaimed winner in the "best party" category.

For the sports-minded, Sports Illustrated has ranked "America's Top 50 Jock Schools."

The article rates the sports atmosphere on campus, intramurals, national championships, athlete-graduation rates, the quality of sports bars, mascots, school bands and, of course, tailgate parties.

The University of Virginia received the No. 14 ranking in part because of extra credit accorded for its coed sauna.

But the ratings rankle some.

Robert J. Massa, dean of enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University, said rankings are overrated and, in many cases, unscientific.

"The rankings can be abused by prospective students and their parents without them even knowing it," said Massa, whose university was ranked No. 14 among best national schools in U.S. News & World Report.

"If parents only want their child to apply to the top 10 schools, they are depriving that child by not looking beyond the subjective ratings. I say this in spite of the fact that Hopkins rated highly in Money magazine's 'costly but worth it,' and in just about every magazine with the exception being best party school."

Despite his feelings, Massa said that sometimes lists are a helpful component in the complex decision of picking a college.

"The best advice I can give is to consider a multitude of options and seek multiple sources of information -- whether it's your best friend's cousin or U.S. News & World Report," he said. "The lists are all feeding on the same cultural phenomenon of the sound-bite approach to discovery."

He and Steven R. Antonoff, former dean of admissions for the University of Denver, noted the importance of talking to students enrolled at prospective schools.

Among other things, Antonoff said, be sure to visit prospective schools before accepting admission.

In "The College Finder: 475 ways to choose the right school for you," Antonoff lists many ways to classify colleges that could help students choose the right school, including religion, fashion and fraternities and sororities.

"After 16 years as dean of admissions, I spent a year visiting colleges. I work better with lists and so when I started visiting schools, I listed which might be more granola, more conservative, etc.," said Antonoff, an educational consultant.

"They're nothing more than my observances. The lists are not all-inclusive. I just wanted to broaden the horizon for families that would just pick up U.S. News & World Report and pick from the top 10 schools."

He said an important aspect of visiting colleges is asking questions. He said families are hesitant to ask about social things because they think the counselor will judge the inquiring group as having no direction in life.

"People focus too much on academics. The social environment is important even for the most gifted student," Antonoff said. "Ask about the kinds of traditions and annual activities that freshmen would be involved with. Ask what people do on weekends. You have to ask what's on your mind."

Categories in Antonoff's book range from colleges for the lover of ideas to colleges for the free spirit -- and inevitably that ever-popular category of top party schools.

Antonoff offers a lot of advice about searching for the right school. But one piece of advice he couldn't emphasize enough was to look at 20 to 30 schools.

"People look at far too few schools and are too focused on the top 10. That's not the best way to do it," Antonoff said. "Have a long list and narrow it down by asking questions of counselors and by visits to the schools."

He also said that speaking with an educational consultant might help with the decision-making process. Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va., will send a free directory of consultants.

Massa conceded that college guidebooks and lists will help the prospective student, such as the "Fiske Guide to Colleges." But he said the light-hearted lists should be "taken with a grain of salt."

"Even though there is a danger of students relying on rankings, I still think people don't," Massa said. "They are simply designed to sell magazines and books, not be helpful."

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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