The U.S. News and World Report annual spring "Best Graduate Schools" guide, the most popular and most criticized ranking of graduate schools in the United States, includes nine programs at three Utah universities.

In the list of eight general categories, which will be highlighted in Monday's issue of the weekly news magazine, law schools at Brigham Young University (38th) and the University of Utah (45th) are in the top 50. Also included are the U. medical school (39th among research universities and 50th as a primary care provider) and the Utah State University College of Education (44th) and the BYU business school (44th).

The U.'s community health program ranks third in its category, and the U.'s master's program in public affairs is 41st. USU's rehabilitation counseling program ranks 12th.

School administrators say being on the list is an asset because the guide is probably the most widely used reference book for potential students and their parents. Being on the list also has currency with federal government, which uses the guide in evaluating grant requests.

But the rankings have some built-in biases, administrators say, that make the ranking more a popularity contest than a true assessment of a school's quality.

"We're certainly glad to be included; it's better than not being there," said Scott Matheson, dean of the U. law school.

Matheson, like three-fourths of the law school deans in the country, is about to send an annual letter to the guide compilers questioning the methodology used in the ranking.

Other surveys that don't get similar attention are more accurate and aren't so numbers-oriented, Matheson said. Categories in the U.S. News guide include academic reputation, student entrance exam scores, and amount of research grant funding.

"There are certainly relevant statistics included, but it certainly doesn't capture what is important, and I say that from a school that has done reasonably well in the ranking over the years," Matheson said. "It's probably the most publicized but not the most trusted list, and it's certainly not one they (students and parents) should rely on exclusively."

Despite criticism by Matheson and others, the U.S. News rankings are used prominently in student recruitment material and other advertising by schools who fare well in the list. There is a growing movement, however, among colleges to pull that information from brochures and to refuse to participate in the academic reputation portion of the survey. Critics say the list ultimately just feeds the aura of big-name schools. About 32 percent of colleges no longer provide data to the magazine for that category.

USU spokesman John DeVilbiss said the list is a tool that shouldn't be relied on too heavily in choosing a college. People need to keep in mind it is an effort, as its editors readily admit, to make money by selling magazines and books, he said.

"It is influential, it gets a lot of publicity in the news when it comes out," he said. "Parents especially note these kinds of surveys, but figuring out the best fit for the student, not just where a school ranks, is the most important factor."

According to the survey, USU's college of education ranks fifth in the country in the amount of research grants awarded to education schools at $18.7 million.

Having its rehabilitation counseling program also ranked No. 3 among similar programs in the country is a definite plus, said director Julie Smart. The ranking puts the 3-year-old program in the same company as those that are decades older and have three or four times the faculty.

"The ranking is very important because it helps us get grants for students," Smart said, noting that the program is working under a $2.5 million federal grant to train people who can work with the disabled. Those grants are important because three-fourths of the money must go directly to student scholarships not to building administrative structure of the program, she said.

Ned C. Hill, dean of the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young, said while the school welcomes the recognition, "the most significant measure of our success is the character of our graduates."

Despite the pluses of being on the list, about 7 percent of colleges — such as Reed College, a private, well-respected liberal arts college in Oregon — refuses to send data to the magazine. Reed College has said data in the rankings are mismanaged by the magazine and the news media and are ultimately misused by readers looking to shortcut what should be a carefully researched decision.

The ranking, which began in 1987, has made statistical errors and mis-ranked 44 law schools four years ago. In the 1999 edition, a "standardization" method in testing the validity of the rankings resulted in the California Institute of Technology being moved into first place among science schools. That change put CalTech ahead of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which had tied for first place the previous year.

The change fueled criticism that the rankings are changed to align with perceptions rather than actual improvements by a school.

Bradford MacGowan, a high school counselor in Massachusetts, said in a professional journal article a year ago that it's not so much the data collected but the data processing that is faulty with the guide. He said U.S. News has a "Waring Blender" approach to handling data in which numbers are mixed together to form "a single sauce" that produces a meaningless or at least a confusing single number.

Local counselors and other higher education administrators who did not want to publicly criticize the rankings said privately the list rewards exclusivity and punishes inclusivity. That means that a state college with a mission to educate large numbers of students is penalized in the rankings because it must, usually by law, admit large numbers of students.

Al Sanoff, former rankings editor at U.S. News, said the public should put the rankings in context that it is an imperfect accounting that is a guide and not the last word.