Education reporter Betsy Hammond of the Oregonian Media Group has seen colleges in her region get better at marketing qualities that make them special. For example, Whitman College, a small, liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Washington, stresses the breadth of its programs, close working relationships with professors, and a year-long “Encounters” program offering freshman a deep dive into the ongoing value of a liberal arts education. Western Oregon University, which stresses accessibility, recently announced affordability grants to help students meet rising costs.

Yet as the parent of a 16-year-old son, Hammond is learning how challenging the search process can be. Rankings often “read as though they were written by someone sitting in an office crunching numbers,” she says. “People feel overwhelmed.”

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