As high school seniors sort through the morass of college brochures flooding their mailboxes this fall, the president of St. John's College in Annapolis takes comfort in the fact that students have a new and, he says, better tool to search for their perfect school.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities recently relaunched its Web site of independent schools with a new search engine and consumer guide for finding financial aid.
It's been a year since St. John's joined 728 other independent colleges and universities on the network of college listings, meant as an alternative to national publications that rank schools. The University & College Accountability Network, known as U-CAN, provides free information on graduation rates, demographics, tuition and other criteria without subjective information often included in for-profit publications, such as U.S. News & World Report.
Two other nonprofit organizations have launched or are planning to launch similar sites.
St. John's College, which has campuses in Annapolis and Sante Fe, N.M., is not sure what effect the U-CAN site has had on prospective students, said Christopher Nelson, president of the college's Annapolis campus. St. John's has boycotted the U.S. News survey for 10 years because the school's intimate teaching style and intense focus on the classics does not come across in a top 10 list that includes statistics such as teacher pay and alumni giving rates, Nelson said. It's more important for students to pick a school that fits their needs, he said.
"I think putting all schools on a one-size-fits-all scale is a terrible mistake," said Nelson, who graduated from St. John's Santa Fe campus in 1970. "That 160th school might be the perfect school."
Nelson, who has been president at St. John's for 18 years, said he has met more than 100 college presidents and calls many of them friends. He says he felt uncomfortable, however, when U.S. News staffers asked him to rate his peer institutions and talk about their reputations.
"I have great respect for them, but I don't know anything about what's going on at the schools," Nelson said.
It's that kind of subjective ranking that is unfair and why he prefers the U-CAN site, he said.
School participation in the site has increased 21 percent in the past year, said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
U.S. News has been rating colleges and universities for 25 years. It says it take a comprehensive look at 1,400 accredited four-year schools through 15 categories, including graduation and retention rates and student selectivity.
Kenneth Terrell, education editor at U.S. News, said readers have given positive feedback about the peer assessment included in the rankings. He said higher education officials provide insight into what other schools are doing.
"They know a lot about the schools with which they are competing against, and we value their opinions," he said.
Although St. John's College did not participate in U.S. News' survey, it came in 122nd in its rankings of liberal arts colleges.
St. John's is one of 12 colleges and universities in Maryland to participate on the U-CAN Web site. The colleges and universities enter information into a template that the association developed based on focus groups of prospective students and parents nationwide.
The information includes data similar to U.S. News, such as the number of students, tuition, financial aid and size. But it does not include the rankings or peer assessments included in the U.S. News survey. The U-CAN site allows students to search schools by location, religious affiliation, degrees offered, tuition, average undergraduate loans and other information.
Pals said that focus groups asked the association for greater transparency in data.
"What we found in focus groups is that existing rankings weren't getting the job done," he said. "Consumers wanted the opportunity to rank schools themselves."
Other for-profit publications, such as Peterson's and Barron's college guides, provide information, but they don't rank schools.
Other sites also are joining the fray. The College Portrait Web site, which caters to public institutions, was launched Sept. 29. So far, www.collegeportraits.org has more than 300 institutions participating.
The nonprofit Education Conservancy, which has been critical of ranking surveys, also has a site in the works that would be based on a standard set of criteria, without rankings.
Nelson, who has five children, said all of them had to find the colleges that were right for them. Publications that promote rankings over information throw parents and students into an unhealthy competition over which school is best, he said.
"They have to find not just the best, but the best fit," Nelson said.
other u-can maryland colleges
* Baltimore International College
* Goucher College
* The Johns Hopkins University
* Loyola College in Maryland
* Maryland Institute College of Art
* McDaniel College
* Mount St. Mary's University
* Stevenson University (formerly Villa Julie College)
st. john's college at a glance
* 490 undergraduate students
* 75 graduate students
* Tuition and fees: $38,854
* Room and board: $9,284
* Average undergraduate loans owed at graduation: $21,277
* Student faculty ratio: 8 to 1
* 62 percent of students graduate within four years
* 83 percent of students come from other states; 15 percent from Maryland; and 2 percent from overseas
Source: St. John's College