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Originally published October 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 27, 2007 at 10:05 AM

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Are they really the "best" schools?

Are they really the "best" schools? This year has brought renewed debate about "best schools" rankings, particularly the influential ones...

This year has brought renewed debate about "best schools" rankings, particularly the influential ones compiled by U.S. News & World Report, and the launch in September of a noncommercial college-comparison site for private institutions called U-CAN that hopes to diminish U.S. News' power. Two more rival sites, from liberal-arts and public-college consortiums, are in development.

The criticism: A host of liberal-arts colleges are now boycotting the U.S. News ratings by refusing to submit data used in the rankings. Among the objections are that a quarter of a school's score is subjective, based on its rating by "peer" school officials; that the weight given to selectivity encourages college-marketing hype to drum up more applications; and that arbitrary percentages are weighted to factors that may not be important to everyone (say, percentage of faculty who are full-time). Other, more objective criteria in the rankings include graduation and retention rates, and class size (www.usnews.com).

More accountability: U.S. News has always responded that students and their parents need ways to compare colleges, and colleges haven't done a good job of making that information easily available. That's a point also made by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who launched a commission focusing on gaining accountability from colleges about what students are actually learning and whether they're being prepared for the 21st-century workplace.

The rival: In response, one school consortium, The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, started up its own school-comparison Web site in September: U-CAN, University and College Accountability Network: http://www.ucan-network.org/.U-CAN covers more than 500 of its private higher-ed institution members, including Princeton and Harvard, and expects more. Bright graphics and charts show graduation rates, geographical makeup of enrollees, admission statistics and more. It promises continuing improvements but for now doesn't have nearly the amount of data, or direct sorting ability, of U.S. News.

More rivals: Look for sites in the near future, one from The Annapolis Group, a network of 121 independent liberal-arts colleges (www.collegenews.org/theannapolisgroup.xml)) and another from the trio of Association of American Universities, representing 60 U.S. and two Canadian research universities; the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, representing more than 430 public colleges and universities; and the 216-member National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which represents public research universities, land-grant institutions, and state-university systems (more info: http://www.aau.edu/). Other "best" lists: Meanwhile, many other sites, books and magazines offer their own "best" lists, which rotate yearly. For example: Princeton Review's "best values" this year (2008) includes one Northwest pick: Whitman College as No. 7 in their Top 10 Best Value in Private College (determined by more than 30 factors measuring academic excellence, financial aid package generosity and/or relatively low costs of attendance: www.princetonreview.com).

The review lists Seattle University as 11 "Featured 2008 Best Colleges" in its book of "Best 366 Colleges."

So, should you pay attention to rankings?

Best advice seems to be: Such lists can be interesting, but most important is to focus on the individual factors being measured — whether it's class size, say, or graduation rate — that are most important to you.

Seattle Times staff and Suzanne Monson

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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