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DIY College Rankings

For better or worse, the college-rankings field is ever fertile.

The latest innovation is College Factual, a new Web site that allows users to create customized rankings of colleges based on criteria they select. Students may weight each of 17 factors (including ethnic diversity, graduates’ starting salaries, and freshman-to-sophomore retention rates) as unimportant, slightly important, important, very important, or critical.

Users then choose the colleges they wish to rank. With the click of a few keys, you can create your own personalized list of top colleges, sorted from No. 1 all the way down to that weird college your uncle attended.

This do-it-yourself sorting reminded me of College Confidential’s SuperMatch, a search tool that lets users weight the importance (“kinda,” “very,” or “must have”) of 23 criteria. On College Factual, clicking through an institution’s profile yields a slew of data, compiled from various sources. Each institution gets a scorecard with (wait, what’s this?) grades in numerous categories.

No rankings system is completely objective, of course. Each one reflects the choices made by its creators, no matter how “data-driven” it is. I thought of this when I clicked on “high faculty salaries,” one of the 17 factors, and a pop-up window appeared. “Colleges providing higher compensation rank higher,” it said. Well, OK. And I wondered about the “expenditures per student” factor. Too little of that can be bad for students, but, then again, so can too much.

Anyway, there’s a lot to chew on. For an explanation of why Michigan’s Adrian College gets an F-plus for “value for your money,” for instance, click here. To understand how Appalachian State University’s student-to-faculty ratio compares with the national average, and for a sense of what the percentage of full-time instructors might indicate, click here. All of that nuance may or may not appeal to those who seek an instant-rankings fix.

Bill Phelan, chief executive officer of College Factual, describes the Web site as an informational tool built not for those obsessed with Ivy League colleges, but for everyone else. ”The human brain wants a starting point,” says Mr. Phelan. “This is a well-developed starter kit. You build your own rankings, and you get smarter along the way.”

I asked Mr. Phelan to explain how one might use the information found on his Web site to become a smarter consumer. He pointed me to the profile of a small college where only half of the instructors are full time. After reading that information, he says, a parent might choose to ask the college something like this: “You charge $23,000 a year for your tuition on a net basis, but half your faculty is part time. What’s your vetting process around your adjuncts? We know that adjuncts are paid X percent of full-time faculty. Are those savings going to be passed on to me? Do your adjuncts have an office? Do they meet with students on campus?”

And people wonder why admissions officers don’t sleep well.

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