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"We're #1"--so what?

Although my children are more than a decade away from higher education, I have to admit the whole college search and admissions process scares me. So much has changed since I applied to two schools and picked one. You need a glossary just to understand the acronyms: ED, EA, EFC, PSAT/NMSQT.

If you don't know those stand for Early Decision, Early Action, Expected Family Contribution, and Preliminary SAT (which used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now is an empty acronym)/National Merit Scholar Qualifying Test, you've got some brushing up to do.

Observing family and friends who have navigated the process has been eye-opening. It seems to involve a lot of unsolicited mail, trips around the country and teenage angst. It helps to be a good researcher, so you can sort through the many variables: academic reputation and programs, sports and other extracurriculars, religious affiliation, location, cost and, most importantly, what the potential student's friends think of the school.

What doesn't seem to be a determining factor for most families trying to choose a school is the institution's rank on any of the various lists that have become an annual PR event for a number of publications. As a journalist, I understand the appeal of angling an article to include a top 10 list, but do we really need US. News and World Report to tell us that Harvard, Princeton and Yale are the top three national universities in the U.S.?

US. News and World Report segments its list into national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional colleges or universities (in four regions), most connected schools, best value, up-and-coming, most international students, best public school, by academic program, and--in a remarkable feat of positive spin--"A+ schools for B students," for students "with less than stellar test scores or so-so grade point averages."

Another list, Forbes magazine's I "America's Top Colleges," boasts that its criteria focus on educational outcomes not reputation, while Kiplinger's Personal Finance ranks the "best value" for public and private schools, and includes a list of institutions whose graduates have the lowest debt.

Catholic media invariably follow the release of these broader lists with news stories highlighting the Catholic schools on them, a la "Six Catholic universities make Forbes top 100 list." We journalists call that "finding the Catholic angle."

But what if you care less about the ratio of international students or even Forbes' ideas of educational outcomes, and more about the religious identity of a school? Which are the best Catholic schools?

Well, fear not: There are plenty of those lists, too. I'm partial to the one compiled by findthebest.com, since it puts my alma mater at the top.

But traditionalist Catholics, for whom adherence to the Catholic faith is paramount in a school, know the only list that really counts is the one compiled by the Cardinal Newman Society, which is devoted to promoting and defending "faithful Catholic education"--or attacking anything they consider not faithful.

The 2012-13 "Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College" features a list of 28 recommended colleges, including six online or international institutions. Although it does not disclose its criteria, the society appears to weigh heavily whether the school has implemented Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the controversial 1990 papal document on Catholic colleges and universities that I underscored the authority of the bishop, perhaps to the detriment of intellectual inquiry and academic freedom. For the Newman Society, great books programs are good, a lack of crucifixes in classrooms is not.

It's interesting to note that the Newman schools rarely make the secular lists: None are on the Forbes list and few are ranked highly by US. News and World Report. Several, however, are deemed a "good value" by Kiplinger.

In the end, it's not that smart to choose a college based on a "best" list. Like many other things in life, choosing a college or university is more a matter of fit. What may be a perfect school for one student could be a disaster for another.

Just like when all those "best cities in America" lists tell me I should move to Omaha or Anchorage. I'll just stick with Chicago, the sixth most miserable city in America, according to Forbes.

At least they liked my alma mater.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University, located outside of Chicago.]
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Title Annotation:COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES; basis for selecting colleges to enroll your children
Author:Schlumpf, Heidi
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:723
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