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The Ratings Game: Searching for a New Model

The U.S. secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, recently declared her intention to get into the college-ranking game - sending a chill up the spines of college and university presidents everywhere.

The Bush administration thinks a new federal accreditation system would help families compare institutions and decide where their sons and daughters should apply to college.

Sounds fine. But do we really want the federal government to become a national accreditation authority?

Theoretically, politicians with an agenda - conservative or liberal - could harm irreparably institutions of higher education deemed "dangerous" or "biased." How would a federal agency evaluate a Catholic, Muslim or Baptist institution, or one with a peace mission? It's also difficult to imagine a federal system that has difficulty managing and rating food safety, pharmaceutical medication and toy imports magically developing the ability to tell students which college would transform their lives.

States and regional accreditation agencies already evaluate colleges. What is the point of another agency jumping into the fray when even a bare-bones office to rate colleges would cost millions?

Has anyone in the Bush administration visited a bookstore lately? There are dozens of college guides on store bookshelves and a half dozen respected polls compiled by various magazines. Juniata College, the institution I oversee, is listed in more than 12 guides and every one of them provides excellent information on a variety of colleges, from Juniata to Harvard to Penn State.

...do we really want the federal government to become a national accreditation authority?

Many ratings are readily available on the Web or in high school counselors' offices, and universities and colleges themselves are getting into the act, as well. The new U-Can Web site (ucan-network.org), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, gives honest and in-depth information about more than 600 of its members.

So why should the federal government spend the money to get into the ranking game?

President Bush is ostensibly conservative, but a benchmark of conservative political philosophy is that intrusive government is a bad thing. Nevertheless, the Bush administration is recommending significantly more oversight of our 3,000 colleges and universities, while collecting data that already is widely available. You would think President Bush and his educational advisers prefer Europe's socialist model, where universities report to the national government, students get assigned to the "right" university and faculty are civil servants.

Although many college guides exist, compiled by education experts and former education journalists, I propose a ratings system that a compassionate conservative should love. It would reduce the size of government and put decision-making in the hands of citizens.

How about using the Zagat Survey as a model? Started as a newsletter that allowed diners themselves to rate restaurants, Zagat used the Internet to branch into rating hotels, attractions and other products.

There are a few print and online resources similar to Zagat, such as studentsreview.com, which allows current students and alumni to rate their experiences, and collegeprowler.com, which uses a handful of student volunteers at each institution to compile print and online guides. But these guides and others don't quite fit the Zagat model because many ask for opinions only of current students. Few if any guides ask parents for their opinions.

An enterprising entrepreneur could easily improve on existing surveys by compiling views of parents and students immediately after graduation. It wouldn't be all-inclusive but it might be the most democratic guide out there. Who better to ask whether an institution has lived up to its marketing than a recent graduate and those who foot the bill?

The last thing anyone needs is an intrusive national accreditation agency to oversee a college system that has survived and prospered for centuries without this kind of "help" from the federal government.

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, college presidents hold these truths to be self-evident: Not all colleges and universities are created equal, but most of them are endowed with qualities that make them unique and therefore the best choice for the right student.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. (www.juniata.edu).