IF PROSPECTIVE college students and their parents looked just at the slick catalogs and brochures put out by institutions of higher education, they might be convinced that every school possesses a learning environment and cultural milieu unrivaled since the days of the Greek philosophers.
Not to mention a good football team.
Few colleges and universities live up to those ideals, of course, so many if not most students and parents need help in choosing a worthy place to invest their academic energy - and rising pile of tuition dollars - for four years or more.
Seeking guidance amid the hype, they turn to published ratings of the higher education spectrum, notably the annual list compiled by U.S. News & World Report.
As the Washington Post recently wrote, "Since the magazine began publishing the rankings in 1983, they have emerged as the most read and powerful such listings in the country. Students devour them, colleges jockey to raise their position, alumni scream when they don't like what they see."
In addition, harsh criticism is heaped on the ratings by campus officials who dispute their usefulness. It's happening again this year as a group of college presidents are trying to encourage each other to withhold information from the survey.
Some officials claim the ratings are misleading, but what they apparently object to most is the peer review, in which officials are asked to judge the quality of other schools and their course offerings.
Objecting to the ratings is a losing battle, as the educational pooh-bahs ought to know by now, and their reservations betray a somewhat effete sense of insecurity that the public will learn a simple truth:
All academic institutions are not created equal.
In attracting the best students, the University of Toledo cannot realistically compete with Harvard, for example (although UT should certainly aspire to lift itself out of its customary low ranking).
The fact is, however, that many students choose a college not because it ranks in the top 10 academically but for more practical reasons, like affordability, campus safety, proximity to home, or even climate.
Which is why ratings like those from U.S. News will continue to be avidly followed by the real-world public while academicians continue to gaze down from their ivory towers in self-serving contempt.