Applying to college has always been a bit of a number crunch: SAT, GPA, various dates and deadlines — and now, a jumble of conflicting college rankings — can make any overwhelmed high school senior want to curl up in the fetal position.

The U.S. News & World Report’s 2003 “America’s Best Colleges” issue — the industry standard — says Yale is the number three university in the nation, the Princeton Review ranks Yale number one, and the shot glasses owned by many Yalies show that Yale is number one among the Ivies for alcohol consumption.

Now, add to the mix the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly, available for obsessive parents this week on newsstands across the nation. According to The Atlantic Monthly’s brand new list of the top 50 most selective colleges in America, Yale ranks number four, behind the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, Princeton University, and the California Institute of Technology. Harvard follows Yale at number five.

Although The Atlantic Monthly’s list may have little impact on the everyday lives of students already enrolled in college, on the pages of newspapers and in the offices of college counselors and admissions deans across the country, the magazine’s new rankings have already revived an old debate: Is there really a number one college out there, or just 3,000 different “fits”?

The Atlantic Monthly itself weighed in on this debate with a decidedly negative outlook on college rankings.

“Such a rating seems to provide clarity,” Don Peck wrote in an article that accompanied the Atlantic Monthly’s own rankings. “But the clarity is an illusion.”

The November issue extensively criticizes the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, which bring in 11 million readers annually, for measuring the wealth and resources of colleges rather than the actual quality of education an institution provides its students. The U.S. News & World Report bases its rankings on a wide array of data, from alumni-giving rates to faculty salaries.

But quality of education is not an easy thing to accurately measure, and The Atlantic Monthly avoids the problem by limiting itself to ranking “selectivity”: admissions rates, SAT scores and high school rank of incoming freshmen.

Paradoxically, it is the college counselors and admissions offices — the key players in the college admissions game — that dislike the college rankings the most. At the recent National Association for College Admissions Counseling convention in Long Beach, CA, a room full of high school college counselors booed the representative from the U.S. News & World Report, and groaned when The Atlantic Monthly’s spokesman announced the magazine’s new ranking system, Bruce Bailey, the director of college counseling at Lakeside School in Seattle, WA., said.

“The rankings are just the same-old, same-old,” Bailey said. “Not too many surprises — When the staid Atlantic Monthy gets into it, it’s kind of disappointing.”

When Bailey advises his students, he said, he rarely refers them to the rankings, which he believes feed into a “self-perpetuating monster” involving anxious parents and students, image-conscious and resource hungry colleges and alumni donors.

“I think it’s all really about the anxiety industry,” he said. “It just adds to the whole commercialization of the thing.”

Even though Yale fares well in the rankings, Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw expressed his disapproval of the craze for lists and labels.

“I think it’s unfortunate because American popular culture seems to be highly in tune with ranking systems,” Shaw said. “It resonates with the population.”

Although opponents of the ranking systems have accused universities of tweaking data and manipulating yield rates by admitting more students early in order to obtain a higher ranking, Shaw said Yale has never done anything specifically to influence the lists. He said the admissions department remains ultimately unconcerned about Yale’s number.

“Really, there’s no significance whatsoever if we’re number three or number eight,” he said.

The lists mislead students to believe there are vast differences between the number one and number three college, Shaw said, and he encouraged students to make educated decisions by researching schools on the Internet and visiting campuses.

Most current Yale freshmen, not far removed from the college admission process, echo Shaw’s sentiments.

Sarah Price ’07 said she considered the rankings as background during her search for the right college, but she knew they would not be enough for her decision.

“I figured the college ranking guides can give an overview, but it’s not personal,” she said.

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