Brigham Young University is the highest ranked Utah institution in U.S. News & World Report's 1998 rankings of the nation's colleges and universities.

The private university, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rated among the second tier of schools nationwide, according the report, which hits newsstands Monday, Aug. 24. The second tier includes schools ranked 51st to 117th, although the schools are listed in alphabetical order so an actual placement is not readily known.The magazine rates schools according to academic reputation, freshman retention rates, graduation rates, class size, selectivity, alumni giving and the percentage of full-time faculty.

Last year, BYU ranked in the third tier of the ratings. Its 1998 rating was helped by a high score for academic reputation, which is measured through a survey to university presidents, provosts and deans of admission around the country.

BYU also improved graduation and freshman retention rates. The university has for several years lobbied the magazine not to penalize the school because many of its students serve church missions and often take at least six years to graduate.

Finally, BYU officials say, the rankings take factors such as missionary service into account.

"We think it more accurately reflects where we are than it has in the past," said BYU President Merrill J. Bateman. "For us to be recognized as high as we are given our few number of doctoral programs is very good and speaks well of our people."

Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities tied as the best national universities.

The University of Utah and Utah State University were ranked in the third tier of the best national universities. The third tier includes schools ranked 118th through 172nd.

USU Assistant Provost Blythe Ahlstrom said the rankings judge schools against specific criteria, and those criteria may benefit particular schools. For instance, Ahlstrom said, he believes freshman retention is likely higher at Harvard because the university attracts students who are serious about attending that university and completing their degrees.

"For most people who go to Harvard, their minimum objective is a four-year degree," he said.

Because of the pressures some Utah students experience to attend college, some come to the state's universities "to give higher education a try."

As for USU's ranking, Ahlstrom said he believes the land-grant Research I university "is better than they list us. There are a lot of places listed above us that I would not be as enthusiastic about recommending someone go there."

Paul Brinkman, the U. director of planning and policy studies, said the U. typically hovers between the second and third tier of the magazine's survey.

The rankings do not take into account the U.'s status as urban institution, meaning most U. students commute to school and work. That postpones graduation, as do church missions. The student body also includes full-time students whose primary focus is school.

"We have to accommodate a wide range of people with various interests, abilities and goals. It's a conundrum to unpack them enough and have something for each of them," Brinkman said.

The ranking system, although improved over the years, has its own limitations, said Brinkman.

"Gosh, if I had a son or daughter, would I want them to take this and a make a judgment off of it? My answer would be `No.' "

Under regional ratings, Salt Lake's private Westminster College ranked in the top tier of colleges and universities in the West. The school also was rated a best value.

"We always appreciate when national magazines recognize us. I work with students on a daily basis and they tell me they love their experience here and that's what really counts," said Phil Alletto, vice president for student development and enrollment planning.

Among colleges in the West, Weber State University and Southern Utah University ranked in the second and third tiers, respectively.

WSU president Paul H. Thompson said he is pleased by the notoriety. In the bigger scheme of things, proximity has more to do with college selection than rankings, he said. Some 80 percent of students attend college in their home states, he said.

Still, a little recognition doesn't hurt. "We're delighted to be included in that category as one of the best schools in the West. Obviously, we think this is an excellent school and other people are becoming aware of that," he said.