For the second straight year, Princeton University is at the top of the annual campus rankings by U.S. News & World Report, ahead of Harvard and Yale. The list, released Thursday, appears amid growing criticism that it misses the point of college -- learning.
Even the No. 1 school downplayed its placement.
"While we appreciate the recognition in these rankings, we don't put much stock into this particular ranking, or to others like it," Princeton spokeswoman Marilyn Marks said. "There are issues of methodology and subjectivity, and we don't believe any ranking can capture whether any institution is appropriate for any individual student."
U.S. News counters that the editors' year-round effort to get the rankings right includes regular consultation with top college officials nationwide. It says complaints from schools are few.
More importantly, consumers understand the list is only a starting point, said Peter Cary, U.S. News special projects editor.
"The hundreds of thousands of people who buy our guidebook are not buying it to find out who's No. 1," Cary said, "They're really buying these guidebooks to mine the data, to find out what college is right for them."
The rankings, first presented in 1983, were released on the magazine's Web site. They'll also be available in the magazine and a more comprehensive book, "America's Best Colleges," starting Monday.
Harvard and Yale tied for second behind Princeton in the magazine's premier category of "national universities-doctoral." The 249 schools in that group offer an array of undergraduate majors, master's and doctoral programs.
The California Institute of Technology was fourth and tied for fifth were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Sorting schools into three other categories, the magazine also ranks liberal arts colleges; universities that chiefly offer bachelor's and master's degrees; and schools that focus on undergraduates but have high enrollments in professional programs like nursing and teaching. The last two categories are broken down by region.
Most of the information in the rankings comes from a survey the schools complete.
Schools are placed into categories, then graded by a numeric formula figuring in such factors as selectivity, class size, faculty salaries, graduation rates and alumni giving.
The biggest part of the equation -- 25 percent -- is academic reputation. For that, campus executives are asked to rate rival institutions.
Amy Graham, who ran the U.S. News' rankings for 18 months in the late 1990s, co-wrote an article for the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, criticizing the rankings as shallow.
"The basic problem is some of the criteria they use are just measuring the wrong thing," she said in an interview. The high-scoring schools tend to be those that produce a lot of research, with money and faculty salaries to match, she said.
The rankings need to factor in evidence of education, including student satisfaction, she said.
U.S. News has looked for ways to quantify how much students actually learn, their satisfaction and results, but has yet to find a workable method, Cary said. Still, he said, "most of the people we talk to believe most of what we're doing is on the right track."
One exception is Bard College President Leon Botstein, who regularly assails the rankings.
"They don't really analyze the quality of teaching. They don't analyze the curriculum," said Botstein, whose Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., school ranks 38th among liberal arts colleges. "It's a club ranking. This is the equivalent of the restaurants you want to be seen in."
Yet Botstein readily furnishes U.S. News with data used to rank Bard. And Graham, who is now helping Arlington County, Va., develop a community "report card," said that when her 13-year-old son starts looking for a college, she'll be buying the U.S. News guidebook. "The graduation-rate data are worth the price of the book alone," she said.
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