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Published by The New York Times

WHO CARES? (Not Students, Apparently)

RANKINGS seem to matter less to high school students than one might assume, given the heat they generate among administrators and alumni. For the most part, young students seem to follow the suggestion that rankings should serve as a ''starting point,'' as U.S. News & World Report urges in the prelude to its rankings.

According to a 2002 poll by the Art and Science Group, a higher education consulting company, about 20 percent of high school seniors headed for four-year colleges read ''any articles or reports that ranked colleges,'' with students who score highest on SAT's paying the most attention. Only 12 percent say rankings were ''very influential'' in their decisions, and 5 percent cite U.S. News specifically. The prestige of a high ranking is more a selling point for parents. A survey in September at Illinois Wesleyan University found parents four times as likely as incoming freshmen to have given a lot of weight to rankings.

''Are they having a broad and deep effect on a large proportion of college-bound students? The answer is no,'' says David W. Strauss, an Art and Science partner. ''Administrators will tell you they hear about rankings from their trustees and their alums,'' he says. ''Our fear is that the institution will pay so much attention -- sometimes to the detriment of the quality of the institution -- that eventually the students will, too.''

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