In college choice, information and insight reign

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For decades, U.S. News & World Report has meticulously ranked American colleges and universities. Many parents of college-interested children use its meaty rankings to guide where, and where not, to direct their progeny.

Now, some institutions – such as the University of Maine at Farmington, a high achiever from U.S. News – are spitting the magazine’s bit to protest the weight U.S. News gives to “peer review” assessments .

“While there’s a lot about [U.S. News] we love dearly and we’ve received top rankings for 10 years, people are realizing that part of the survey…is not distinctly valid or accurate sometimes,” says Theodora F. Kalkow, the president of UMF.

Kalkow echoed the Annapolis Group, an association of private colleges (Bates, Bowdoin and Colby are members) which has urged its membership to boycott U.S. News’ peer review, in favor of establishing it’s own online collegiate information system.

“I think the key thing that institutions are saying is compare schools, don’t rank them,” Dr. Katherine Will, president of Gettysburg College and Annapolis Group chair, told the New York Times.

Higher education is much different than 20 years ago, when U.S. News started ranking. Costs have spiraled (the College Board, for example, last October found public university costs increased 35 percent from 2001-2006), while financial aid availability has decreased precipitously per student.

Meanwhile, educational attainment is more important than ever.

Illustrating this environment is the state’s enthusiasm in offering tax credits for graduates of Maine colleges to stay here to work, which emphasizes the desperation to create – and retain – an educated workforce. The fledgling program has received nationwide attention for its creativity, and its merit.

Its success, however, starts with students and parents having all information possible in choosing a collegiate path. For two decades, that’s meant the U.S. News rankings.

The rankings are dependable because its source, a reputed national magazine, is solid. Though some administrators gripe about its methods, its findings cannot be supplanted by an online catalog, as proposed by the Annapolis Group and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

These softer “comparisons” might make excellent addenda to college-decision making, but don’t outmatch the independent, rigorous, appraisals offered by U.S. News. For a decision as critical as college, parents and students should have both, and expect institutions to provide all the information requested of them.

Institutions like UMF and others that eschew the U.S. News rankings – in whatever form – are risking there’s a better way to evaluate higher education.

By doing so, they are doing a disservice to potential students and parents, who need as much insight as possible into making one of the most important choices of their lives.

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