Twenty-five years ago, the news magazine U.S. News & World Report began what has become an annual ranking of the top 100 colleges in America. This edition has become so wildly popular - and profitable - that it typically sells 50 percent more copies than the normal issue. The Internet version generates more than a million views within three days - twice as many as any other U.S. News posting.
And the Top 100 Colleges list has spawned numerous imitators in a nation that loves lists, including rankings of hospitals, law schools, films - even the Top 100 Train Wrecks of the 20th Century.
Critics of the Top 100 Colleges report complain that criteria for picking the best schools keep changing, which U.S. News has admitted. One of the criticisms is that small, private schools always get the top rankings because they can select the best students from a pool of wealthy kids who have all of life's advantages. The most virulent critics argue that the rankings have spawned harmful competition among colleges that become more consumed with scoring high than teaching well. Some schools even give their administrators bonuses based on how the college scores each year.
All this is mild, though, compared with the outcry over more recent rankings, by Newsweek magazine, of the top 100 high schools in the land.
Talk about competition! Now some newspapers are covering the school rankings as if they were a horse race, even giving odds on this year's winner and publishing tables on the winners and losers in categories like student test scores.
Bernie Heidkamp, a high school English teacher in Oak Park, Illinois, writes on his blog that the Newsweek list is irresponsible and little more than another - what he calls - cash cow to attract readers.
He calls the rankings The World's Stupidest List.
And how has U.S. News responded? It, too, now ranks top public high schools as well as colleges. "What's next?" grumble the critics: America's Top 100 Day Care Programs for Infants?
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.