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Degrees of individuality

RANKINGS, schmankings. Jackie Jenkins-Scott is the first to poke fun at herself over them. Her daughter Amber is graduating this weekend from Smith College. Asked if she and her daughter checked out US News and World Report's annual ranking of colleges and universities four years ago when Amber was looking at colleges, Jenkins-Scott laughed.

"Of course!" she said. "The kids look at all this stuff. Smith was 13th in the rankings back then (in the megazine's category of Top Liberal Arts Colleges). But now, Smith just fell to 19th. Amber now grumbles. She says, throw it away. It's all just hype. It doesn't mean anything."

Today, Jenkins-Scott, the president of Wheelock College in Boston, is one of 11 small college presidents who are circulating a letter asking schools to not participate in this popularity contest. This comes at a time when the frenzy of families to get their children into the "best" schools seems more intense than ever.

In its 2006 report "The State of College Admission," the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that 73 percent of colleges and universities reported receiving more applications in 2005 than the previous year. Nationally, four-year colleges accept an average of 70 percent of their applicants. But the acceptance rank of the Ivies and schools such as MIT, Stanford, and the military academies have acceptance rates of between 9 percent and 21 percent.

The NACAC's report said the frenzy to get into the "best colleges" is "a zeitgeist that is fed by media publications such as US News and World Report." Jenkins-Scott, who runs a college known for producing teachers and social workers, said it is time to remember that the "best" schools are those that are best for the individual student. "Our alums are not starting Google and giving back $20 million," she said. "They are teachers out making $38,000 a year. But they are still making a difference in the world. We joke here that the Wheelock Family Theater is our football team."

I'm with Jenkins-Scott on this, since I happen to be a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a mostly commuter college of 23,640 undergraduates. You will not find UWM on many "best" lists, but some interesting folks managed to walk its undergraduate or graduate halls. They go all the way back to 1917 education graduate and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, Harley-Davidson CEO James Ziemer, and Washington Post deputy managing editor Milton Coleman.

UWM's selectivity (I virtually walked onto the campus in 1972) will never be confused with Harvard's, where seven undergraduate or graduate students have ascended to the presidency of the United States. Given what the seventh graduate, George W. Bush, has done to Iraq and America's global reputation, perhaps that is a good thing. But you will find UWM on a list that might matter more. Last year, Evan Dobelle, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, declared that my alma mater was one of the Top 10 "best neighbor" universities for partnerships, public service, and economic initiatives that strengthen its city.

Andrea Simpson, executive director of UWM's alumni association, said at least five of the city's top CEOs studied at UWM. Of all the 13 UW campuses, it had the most Wisconsin students, more than the flagship school in Madison. "Every school has a mission," Simpson said. "Ours is research and access."

It is good for Jenkins-Scott to remind us that with a little research, there is a school with a mission for every student. If you are a conservative student, you can find a list by Young America's Foundation that says Hillsdale College in Michigan is a Top 10 school for you. If you are a lefty activist, Mother Jones says you might want to consider California's community colleges, Howard University, or James Madison.

If you are looking for the best value, Kiplinger's says SUNY-Binghamton and SUNY-Geneseo are right up there with the University of North Carolina and the University of Florida. If you want a college in Massachusetts that focuses on building "character," the John Templeton Foundation cites Bentley, Brandeis, Holy Cross, Eastern Nazarene, Gordon, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Newbury, Stonehill, Tufts, Wellesley, and Worcester Polytechnic.

"We kind of forget about what makes a college unique," Jenkins-Scott said. "There are so many opportunities, so many ways to be educated." Over the telephone from Milwaukee, Simpson added, "There are other schools with more money, resources, and a football team. We don't have a football team. We still have pride."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is