WASHINGTON — He may be one of the most powerful figures in American higher education, but Mel Elfin doesn't have a Ph.D., teach a single course or hold office hours on any campus.
Still, two high-ranked college officials a week, on average, pay their respects to--and sometimes lobby--this irascible, bushy-browed editor who collects tabloid headlines and gives himself haircuts at his desk.
The reason: Elfin is in charge of the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of more than 1,400 colleges and universities.
One of the magazine's hottest sellers each fall, its annual "America's Best Colleges" list is jokingly referred to as academia's "swimsuit issue." And while the decade-old guide is considered the most influential, it is just one in a burgeoning pack of rankings that has administrators climbing the ivy-covered walls.
There are guides for Christian students, Jewish students, environmentally correct students, disabled students. One popular book rates campus life in restaurant-review style--five stars for the best--and another irreverent tome belittled one university as a "high school with ashtrays." Money magazine computes "best buys," while the Business Week guide evaluates "customer satisfaction."
Experts say these guidebooks and rankings--with their commentaries or compilations of test scores, graduation rates and class sizes--have become a powerful tool in the new scholastic marketplace. As never before, students and their parents are using them to comparison shop.
And that has eroded the control of the intellectual Brahmins, who for decades have determined the academic pecking order but who now must pay attention to the consumer demands of parents and students trying to figure out what constitutes a quality education.
"For us, this is a very fundamental change and it's a very difficult change," said Peter Likins, president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. ". . . What's hard for us in higher education is just being judged by these outsiders. They're not academics and our long-treasured tradition is one of internal evaluation.
"Any college that believes the rankings are of no consequence is blind to realities," he said. "They have an influence on how parents and students behave. They have an influence on how alumni feel about their alma mater."
Not to mention a big effect on how educators act. The Assn. of Universities and Colleges in Canada is trying to block Maclean's magazine from publishing its fourth annual ranking this November. The group passed a resolution calling on member schools to boycott requests from Canada's leading newsmagazine for institutional statistics--a call to arms that many schools have ignored.
Closer to home, college officials lobby, whine and bicker--and widely suspect each other of misreporting statistics to look good. The president of Marshall University in West Virginia chastised colleges that "juggle their numbers" for the guides, an ethical lapse he compared to misusing research funds.
"Reminiscent of Faust's selling his soul to the Devil, some of us in higher education are peddling our souls in exchange for rankings in a magazine's promotional efforts," J. Wade Gilley fumed in a 1992 article for Academe magazine.
It doesn't take a doctorate to figure out why, given the competition in higher education for good students.
"High school counselors tell me that students come into their offices with a page torn out of (U.S. News), saying 'This is where I want to apply' and it is School No. 5 as opposed to School No. 6," said B. Ann Wright, dean of enrollment at Smith College in Massachusetts. "It's the power of the vertical column."
Among Orange County universities, UC Irvine has garnered a share of these rankings. U.S. News' 1994 report listed UCI among the top 25% best universities, and the 1992 report dubbed it one of four collegiate "up-and-comers."
UCI's dance major was included among the nation's top 17 most highly recommended dance programs, according to The Performing Arts Major's College Guide, said UCI spokesman Scott Nelson, and its drama program made the guide's list of 13 most highly recommended graduate drama majors.
The 1993 Gourman Report, another annual national overall listing, listed six UCI programs in humanities in their top 25 in both undergraduate and graduate courses of study.
Some of the reports that have cropped up are more unconventional. UCI was listed among the country's worst dozen universities in June for its "extreme left-wing bias" by Accuracy in Academia--a Washington-based group of conservatives. UCI was in good company: prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale also made the list.
"Some faculty members put a lot of stock into various national rankings, and others don't think much of them," Nelson said. "But you always want to have your name mentioned in a positive light."