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A Bit of Teenage Savvy

August 20, 2003

Colleges and universities go to crazy lengths to improve their positions in the greatly feared yearly rankings of U.S. News & World Report. Many have even distorted their admissions procedures to get a tiny improvement. But it turns out the rankings are not nearly the gorilla that colleges think they are, at least in the minds of potential students. And when the magazine changes its criteria this year, colleges' efforts to nab a few extra points may be moot anyhow.

Starting with its next annual guide to "America's best colleges," in the Sept. 1 issue, the magazine no longer will include "yield" as a factor. Yield is the percentage of applicants who attend a certain college once they've been accepted. Supposedly, it measures how desirable a college appears to students, which might or might not have anything to do with the quality of education.

Twisting themselves to pump up yields, colleges pushed early-decision programs, in which students who apply early have a greater chance of acceptance and then are committed to attending that school. But many students aren't ready to lock in their future that early. The change also put economically strapped students at a terrible disadvantage, since they need to compare financial aid packages from various schools. Thus the magazine's laudable decision to drop yield from consideration, as editors conceded that the rankings were hurting the students they were supposed to help.

When it comes to smart choices, though, it's the teenagers who are proving themselves wiser than all those academic powerhouses and magazine editors. A poll last year by a college-oriented survey company, the Art & Science Group, found that most college applicants didn't take rankings seriously. In fact, on their list of factors influencing their decisions about where to apply, U.S. News & World Report was close to the bottom.

The students have good reason to disregard the rankings. The magazine's annual ratings are based on a stew of questionable data. For example, the magazine polls academicians, who might know little about the campuses involved or have a vested interest in downgrading schools other than their own.

So what makes students apply where they do? Campus visits, they said, plus the colleges' catalogs and Internet sites, advice from guidance counselors, current students and graduates of the schools. (Full poll results are at www.artsci.com/StudentPOLL /v5n1/question3.htm.)

In other words, sources of real information about course offerings, learning atmosphere and teacher quality. Any college should be proud to accept students that bright.

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