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Part four in a four-part series

Quantifying Quality
This week, the 'DP' looks at the history and impact of the 'U.S. News' rankings
Monday: Penn's rise through the rankingsTuesday: An analysis of ranking criteriaYesterday: The history of the rankingsToday: 'U.S. News' and lesser-ranked schools

When the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings were released in August, University City buzzed: Up from seventh, Penn was in the top five once again.

Just a trip down I-95, the new rankings were met with little fanfare at Widener University. Just like last year, Widener held steady in U.S. News's third tier - the group below the top 50 percent.

Each year, discussing the shuffles and shifts at the top of the rankings - Vanderbilt overtaking Emory, Princeton retaining the top spot - is a national event.

But for universities like Widener with regional rather than national reputations, it's hard to care about what U.S. News has to say.

Widener University, in Chester, Pa., accepted 66 percent of students in its most recent class, according to Director of Admissions Edwin Wright. Their average high-school grade-point-average was a 3.4, and their average SAT score was 1030 out of 1600 (they don't count the writing section).

Wright said Widener draws most of its applicants from its backyard, from within two hours of the school. The admissions office is not accustomed to seeing applicants from all 50 states.

And for the most part, it's fine with its place in the rankings.

"It's never even been mentioned," Wright said of Widener's ranking. "We don't make admissions decisions to try to move up or down rankings."

Neither, it seems, do a lot of such institutions - rankings are most important to the schools at the top and those that want to be there, according to Michael Ditchkofsky, the president of the Yardley Research Group higher-education consulting practice.

He added that the U.S. News rankings tend to be biased toward schools that cater toward upper-middle-class students.

Still, when a university is looking to improve its profile, a rise in U.S. News can be a good way to get attention.

Drexel University is currently ranked at 108, toward the bottom of the top tier, but Drexel President Constantine Papadakis told The Philadelphia Inquirer in August that he wants to see the university improve its rank to 80 within five years.

Meanwhile, many schools with regional reputations and relatively low rankings are content to draw students with non-traditional backgrounds and different financial circumstances.

"Their choices are more or less made for" those students, Ditchkofsky said. "In those cases, it's more often a question of convenience."

Still, some say, U.S. News can be a worthwhile source of information for such students, as long as they consider all the data within the rankings, not just an institution's specific placement.

Sally Rubenstone, a senior counselor with the Web site College Confidential, said she uses U.S. News data "to show that a school that may not be in the vaunted 'top tier' can still do very well in important categories like freshman retention and class size."

"Students aiming for the so-called 'non-elite' schools tend to pick out specific statistics that please them . and not worry so much - if at all - about an institution's overall rank," Rubenstone said.

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