League tables have proliferated since the weekly US News and World Report launched its consumer-oriented rankings in 1983.
Now the Princeton Review covers the field from the performance of faculty to "party schools", Kiplinger magazine measures costs as well as academic quality, Yahoo! lists the "100 most wired colleges" and Black Enterprise magazine rates the top 50 colleges for African-Americans.
Would-be students can even find out how squirrel-friendly universities are.
The lowest is a "squirrel-minus" for California State University at Fullerton, where there is a dearth of small furry animals, allegedly because they have been poisoned.
The squirrel rating acts as a proxy for well-wooded grounds, a liberal attitude to campus wildlife or a relaxed attitude to disposal of waste food.
Internationally, too, league tables have become an established part of the landscape. In Canada, Maclean's magazine has been developing its listings, last year adding an indicator for retention at the end of the first year of undergraduate study. And in Europe, Stern magazine has devised an interactive ranking based on a whole mix of objective and subjective criteria.
In East Asia, league tables are established in Japan, but Asiaweek , which pioneered regional rankings, has not repeated the exercise since 2000.
The Holy Grail is an international listing, but finding a basis for comparison when data are often unreliable or meaningless out of the local context is difficult.
Last year, universities took a surprisingly uncritical approach to the ranking exercise carried out by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which drew heavily on citation indices and Nobel prizewinners to compile a list of the top 500 universities around the world.
Data available through international organisations are of very uneven quality, and the university was forced to rely on a limited number of indicators, skewing its findings in favour of research-strong universities.
The over-reliance on citations indicies and publication rates, together with the inclusion of Nobel prizes won, led to accusations of double and triple counting.
Jamie Merisotis, president of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, said: "Rankings of higher education institutions continue to have a high profile in the US. And yet some fairly public questioning by leading universities about the validity of the US News and World Report system, and a market saturation of publications, has taken a bit of the bloom off the rose.
"Consumers seem to want more and better information, but they don't necessarily rely on any one publication. Whether or not colleges and universities agree with the various ranking systems and league tables is irrelevant, because they clearly are here to stay."
Over the past 20 years, league tables have emerged in at least a dozen nations. A group of 20 international experts from the IHEP and Unesco-CEPES (European Centre for Higher Education) will meet in Washington this autumn to begin the process of examining the role that ranking systems and league tables play in overall quality assessment through in-depth evaluations of league table methodologies.
University league tables 2004
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