U.S. EDUCATION Secretary Margaret Spellings recently declared her intention to get into the college-ranking game - sending a chill up the spines of college presidents everywhere.

The Bush administration thinks a new federal accreditation system would help families compare institutions and decide where their sons and daughters should apply to college. Sounds fine. But do we really want the federal government to become a national accreditation authority?

Theoretically, politicians with an agenda, conservative or liberal, could irreparably harm institutions of higher education deemed "dangerous" or "biased."

How would a federal agency evaluate a Catholic, Muslim or Baptist institution, or one with a peace mission? It's also difficult to imagine a system that has difficulty managing and rating food safety, medicine and toy imports magically developing the ability to tell students which college would transform their lives.

States and regional accreditation agencies already evaluate colleges. What's the point of another one jumping into the fray?

Has anyone visited a bookstore lately? There are dozens of college guides, plus a half-dozen respected polls compiled by various magazines. Juniata College, the institution I oversee, is listed in more than 12 guides, and they all provide excellent information on colleges from Harvard to Penn State.

Many ratings are available on the Web or in high school counselors' offices, and universities and colleges are getting into the act as well. The new U-Can Web site (ucan-network.org), sponsored by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, gives in-depth information about more than 600 of its members.

So why should the federal government spend the money to get into the ranking game? President Bush is ostensibly conservative, but a benchmark of conservative philosophy is that intrusive government is a bad thing. The administration is recommending significantly more oversight of our 3,000 colleges and universities while collecting data that's widely available. You'd think that Bush and his educational advisers prefer Europe's socialist model, where universities report to the government, students get assigned to the "right" school and faculty are civil servants.

Despite all those excellent college guides, I'm going to propose a rating system that would reduce the size of government and put decision-making in the hands of citizens. How about using the Zagat model? Started as a newsletter that allowed diners themselves to rate restaurants, Zagat used the Internet to branch into rating hotels, tourist attractions and other offerings.

There are a few print and online resources similar to Zagat, like studentsreview.com, which allows students and alumni to rate their experiences, and collegeprowler.com, which uses student volunteers at each institution to compile print and online guides. But these guides and others don't quite fit the Zagat model because many ask for opinions only of current students. Few if any ask for parents' opinions.

An entrepreneur could easily improve on existing surveys by compiling views of parents and students right after graduation. It wouldn't be all-inclusive but might be the most democratic way. Who better to ask whether an institution has lived up to its marketing than a recent grad and those who foot the bill?

Imagine a guide where recent grads thoughtfully evaluated their colleges, answering questions like "How long did it take to graduate?" "Did any of the faculty know your interests?" "Were you prepared for the working world?"

The last thing anyone needs is an intrusive national accreditation agency to oversee a college system that has survived and prospered for centuries without this kind of "help" from the federal government. *

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College (juniata.edu) in Huntingdon, Pa.