Washington colleges and universities were ranked about the same as last year in the much-watched annual U.S. News college rating. Meanwhile, a national political website took the ranking to task this year, saying its rankings promote inequality.

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Washington’s public and private colleges and universities were rated about the same this year as last in the nation’s most-watched set of college rankings. But new criticism of those rankings may make prospective college students think twice about what they mean.

The national news website Politico on Monday published an investigative report suggesting U.S. News & World Report’s rankings promote inequality on campus. Politico argued that U.S. News rankings create incentives for schools to favor wealthier students over less-wealthy applicants because of the criteria it uses to rank schools.

The story by the Washington, D.C.-based politics website argued that U.S. News may have reinforced economic inequality by making it more likely that universities will accept more students from wealthier families, and fewer students from lower-income families, as a way of keeping their rankings high.

U.S. News rewards schools that spend more per student, and have a more elite student body, according to Politico’s report.

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Last week, Washington Monthly — a liberal-leaning magazine also based in the nation’s capital — meted out similar criticism as part of its annual guide, saying U.S. News “relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige to evaluate schools.” That magazine, which has been ranking schools since 2005, has long been critical of U.S. News and has presented its own rankings as a different way to measure a school’s worth.

And earlier this summer, during a University of Washington regents meeting. President Ana Mari Cauce told the governing board that the easiest way to raise the UW’s profile in U.S. News rankings is to send out a mass-mailing encouraging more students to apply, without increasing the number of students admitted. That trick would make the UW appear more selective, said Cauce, who added that she had no interest in doing so.

In this year’s issue, U.S. News ranked UW Seattle 56th among all national universities, a slight drop from last year’s ranking of 54. Washington State University ranked 140th, a slight increase from last year’s place of 143. Up-or-down movement of a few places is not considered significant.

The alternative Washington Monthly ranks the UW eighth, and WSU 24th, among national universities. The magazine rates schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: social mobility, or recruiting and graduating low-income students; research, or producing cutting-edge scholarship; and doctorates, and service, or encouraging students to give something back to their country.

Washington Monthly’s “best bang for the buck” colleges — schools that help students who aren’t wealthy attain marketable degrees at affordable prices — for the first time this year ranked UW Tacoma as the best school in the Western U.S. Other schools that scored high on that measure: The Evergreen State College, 18th; UW Bothell, 18th; and WSU, 20th.

In U.S. News’ best value among schools category, the top in the west were Whitworth University, Pacific Lutheran University and Gonzaga.

Among regional universities in the west, the highest-rated schools in the U.S. News report include: Gonzaga, fourth; Seattle University, seventh; Pacific Lutheran University, 17th; Western Washington University, 19th; and Evergreen, 33rd.

Washington Monthly placed Evergreen in a slightly different category; it rated the Olympia liberal-arts college third among national universities that offer a master’s degree.

Among national liberal-arts universities, U.S. News ranked Whitman College 41st, and the University of Puget Sound 68th — similar to their standings last year.

The magazine ranked the UW 20th among engineering programs that offered a doctorate in that field. Seattle University was 29th, and Seattle Pacific University was 44th, among engineering schools that offered a bachelor’s or master’s.

And among business schools, four Washington schools appeared on U.S. News’ list: UW, 24th; Gonzaga and WSU, tied for 109th; and Seattle University, 128th.