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University rankings: You be the judge

These numbers have power with a capital P.

Colleges and universities and parents and students look to them every year. They could dictate your academic future, if you let them.

Welcome to the world of college rankings, where every imaginable aspect of a college or university has been sliced and diced, analyzed and quantified and stuck in some publication's pithy list of top colleges.

"Now it seems like everyone and his dog is in the game," says Dennis Gioia, a professor of organizational behavior at Smeal College of Business, Penn State University. "Everybody's got their own version of it."

Introduction to university ranking
College rankings range from serious to silly. Heavy hitters such as U.S. News & World Report reveal the best colleges in America every year. BusinessWeek, Forbes and others tackle the best business schools.

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Left-leaning Mother Jones lists the top 10 activist campuses. Men's Health names the 10 most "male-friendly" colleges. Key aspects of a "male-friendly" college include fraternity power, the availability of intramural sports and workout facilities and how vocal the women's studies department happens to be.

The Princeton Review ranks everything from best library and best professors to the top party schools and top "stone cold sober" schools in its yearly, phonebook-sized publication of The Best 331 Colleges.

The book and its 62 categories are based on student opinions and surveys: Does the school have a great college radio station? Are the dorms like dungeons or palaces? Is the school filled with jocks or "Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking vegetarians?"

And while schools and prospective students take, say, the party school list as seriously as you'd expect, the straightforward, these-are-the-best-schools-because rankings matter quite a bit.

Grade obsession
Gioia has studied the impact of business school rankings on the nation's top business schools.

"The business schools take these rankings very seriously because they can't afford not to," Gioia says. "People pay so much attention to them now -- students, corporate recruiters."

On the plus side, the rankings have stoked up competition between schools and resulted in better recruiting, better MBA programs and better job placement for students.

The downside is this whole rankings business is getting out of control. Some schools get downright obsessed with the rankings. They're constantly on the lookout for ways to boost their numbers. Some schools even hire consultants.

Gioia knows of a city school that decided to do valet parking for corporate recruiters in an attempt to up their ranking.

Did it work? Like a charm.

"That's what works. That's what changes people's opinions. You're treated like a king when you visit," Gioia says.

Prospective students can get swept up in the college rankings game, as well.

"If a school is well-known, then they think that's going to be good for them and help them get into graduate school or get the right job," says Marybeth Kravets, a counselor at a public high school in Deerfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.

Many high school students believe that to be successful in their careers they must attend a top-ranked college or university. And so do a lot of parents.

Sure, plenty of people who attend schools that top the rankings year in and year out go on to have successful careers. But so do tons of people who attend other, less-known colleges and universities.

And as Kravets, who has visited more than 2,700 colleges and universities in her 23 years as a counselor, points out, "There are a lot of schools that may never get on the lists that are phenomenal."

She encourages students to not overlook excellent regional schools in their hunts for the right college.

Independent study
The key thing is for students to find colleges that feel right and meet their priorities.

"You need to come up with your own top 10 schools, your own top five schools," says Frank Burtnett, president of Education Now, a private consulting firm that works with schools and colleges.

"That's the only ranking that counts."

The best place to start is not with what the so-called experts say, but by boiling down what you're looking for in a college. Here are some key things to think about:

  • Personal goals. Why do you want to go to college? What academic subjects interest you the most? Do you know what subject you'd like to major in? Is graduate, law or medical school in your future? What are your career goals?

    "It doesn't make sense to go to a top-ranked school if they don't have your major," Kravets says.

  • Location of school. Do you want to attend a school near home or one that's 3,000 miles away? Is that faraway school near an airport? How often would you be able to visit home during the school year?

  • Size of school. Some students prefer learning in smaller classes and may be more comfortable at a smaller school. For other students, class size doesn't matter.

  • Diversity of student body. Would you like to attend a school with people from similar social backgrounds as your own? Or would you rather attend classes with students from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds? Would you feel more comfortable on a liberal or a conservative campus?

  • Small town vs. big city. When you think of college, do you think of red brick buildings and rolling hills or skyscrapers? Would you be happy living in a college town, or do you prefer the lights of the big city?

    "Some people want to go to college in a city so they get the culture of the city as well as the college," Burtnett says.

    All the extras. What do you like to do? What kind of extracurricular activities and facilities are you looking for in a college?

    "You're going to become a citizen of a college," Burtnett says. "How comfortable are you going to be there?"

  • The cost. How much is tuition? How much is room-and-board? How much financial aid is available? Don't forget to factor in travel expenses for faraway schools.

    Many schools list education costs and typical aid packages on their Web sites.

Taking notes
Make a list of your priorities, and keep it with you as you peruse guidebooks and browse Web sites. Keep score. You're looking for schools that match as many of your priorities as possible.

Once you've narrowed your choices, consult your guidance counselor. If you know anyone who graduated from a school on your college list, be sure to talk to them. Ask them about their college experiences -- the good and the bad.

Be sure to check out schools on your own. The campus visit is incredibly important. You could be spending four or five years of your life there. You better like the place.

While on campus ask some students what they really think of the school. Sit in on a couple of classes. Stay overnight.

"Pick up a couple of campus newspapers. Listen to the campus radio station," Burtnett says. "Do anything you can to get a feel for what a place is like."

-- Updated: Sept. 17, 2004

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