• April 18, 2014

In the Latest 'U.S. News' Survey, a Higher Response Rate and the Usual Winners

Harvard and Princeton Montage

Photographs by Rick Friedman

Harvard and Princeton Universities again tied for the No. 1 spot among national universities in the annual rankings released by U.S. News. The two have traded the top rank or tied for it every year for the last 10 years.

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close Harvard and Princeton Montage

Photographs by Rick Friedman

Harvard and Princeton Universities again tied for the No. 1 spot among national universities in the annual rankings released by U.S. News. The two have traded the top rank or tied for it every year for the last 10 years.

College participation in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings increased this year, after reaching its lowest level ever last year. Forty-eight percent of college leaders who were sent the peer-assessment survey responded this year, up from 46 percent.

The peer survey—the most controversial part of the rankings formula—asks presidents, provosts, and admissions deans to rate institutions on a scale of 1 to 5. The response rate has dropped from 68 percent in 1999, amid a steady drumbeat of anti-rankings rhetoric.

In 2007, the Education Conservancy, led by Lloyd Thacker, began pushing colleges to publicly boycott the survey. And a growing number of alternative rankings have cropped up in recent years. The latest, a grading system designed to measure what students will learn at a particular college, was released Wednesday by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (see related article).

Mr. Thacker, executive director of the conservancy and a prominent critic of the U.S. News rankings, does not put much stock in this year's survey response rate. But, he said, "to the extent that this measures a real change in how institutions are viewing this, it's disappointing news."

College leaders, Mr. Thacker said, should be touting educational values to potential students, not participating in commercial rankings that don't measure what students are learning.

Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, was not sure what contributed to the uptick in this year's survey-response rate. The rate also increased slightly between 2005 and 2006, before continuing to decline.

A controversy this year over how some public-college presidents filled out the peer survey might affect their participation in future years. Clemson University found itself on the wrong end of bad headlines in June after a staff member publicly accused it of gaming the rankings. In the aftermath, the college handed over its president's survey responses to several newspapers. And a handful of other public colleges had to do likewise, after their local papers filed open-records requests.

The dust-up "happened after the results had come in for this year," Mr. Morse said. "We'll have to see next year to what degree it inhibits participation."

The peer-assessment survey accounts for 25 percent of a college's score in the formula used to calculate the overall "best colleges" rankings.

In the future, the magazine may add survey responses from high-school counselors into the mix. Last year, it introduced a separate ranking based solely on a survey of 1,600 high-school counselors. The counselors were not surveyed again this year, but Mr. Morse said the magazine plans to survey a larger group, perhaps 2,000, for next year's college guide.

"We are going to consider the possibility of including high-school counselors as part of the rankings," he said. "We're definitely considering it."

The Perennial Picks

As for the results of this year's rankings, Harvard and Princeton Universities again tied for the No. 1 spot among national universities. The two have traded the top rank or tied for it every year for the last 10 years.

And rounding out the top national universities this year are several other of the usual suspects: Yale University (alone at No. 3) and the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania (clustered at No. 4).

Williams College got the top spot among liberal-arts colleges, and the University of California at Berkeley was the highest-ranked public institution.

U.S. News touts the consistency of the rankings as a sign of quality, while critics say the year-to-year similarities show that the list simply mirrors colleges' longstanding reputations.

Some students, though, do find the U.S. News rankings useful. Trevor B. Burnham grew up in Missoula, Mont., and said he didn't have the time or money to visit the distant liberal-arts colleges that interested him. So, as a high-school junior, he used the rankings to narrow down his selection.

"I applied to Carleton College, which I wouldn't have heard of otherwise, and it worked out wonderfully," he said. Mr. Burnham graduated from Carleton in 2008 and is now working toward a Ph.D. in the School of Information at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

New Additions

This year, U.S. News tried to more directly measure colleges' commitment to undergraduate teaching. It added a ranking in this category based on the responses to a new question in the peer-assessment survey. The question asked respondents to list institutions that had an "unusual commitment to teaching," said Mr. Morse, the magazine's data-research director. A college had to receive at least seven mentions to make the list, which includes 80 colleges. Dartmouth College got the No. 1 spot among national universities, and Pomona College did for liberal-arts colleges.

The new category "was prompted by the fact that by just using raw statistical data, we were not capturing the entire picture of a school," Mr. Morse said. "It was something we were not directly measuring."

This year, U.S. News also tweaked its methodology for the overall rankings. In previous years, when factoring entrance-test scores into a college's rank, the magazine included only the scores from either the ACT or SAT, whichever one was taken by a majority of applicants at a particular college. This year, however, the magazine combined the scores from both tests. Mr. Morse says the change happened for two reasons: "This is a better way to measure the entire class. And with the rise of the ACT, more and more schools are becoming mixed."

For most colleges, he said, the change did not make a significant difference in their rank.

Eric Hoover contributed to this report.


1. 11159995 - August 20, 2009 at 07:54 am

It is not surprising that Dartmouth ranks high in the new category because it is, after all, a college, not a university. The true test is what a university, where professors have strong commitments to graduate programs, does for its undergraduates. I wonder how many outsiders are aware of Princeton's long-time policy of having all professors teach undergraduate courses, which speaks volumes about its commitment to undergraduate education. --- Sandy Thatcher (Princeton, Class of 1965)

2. bdr8y - August 20, 2009 at 08:44 am

Dartmouth is in every practical sense a university. It simply chooses to focus much of its attention on the undergraduate experience for what I think are market niche purposes amongst its ivy peers. If you are simply judging is based on the its use of the word college rather than university in its official name, see: Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 518 (1819)for why it would do so. Also, I can't seem to find that undergraduate teaching requirement in the Rules and Procedures of the Faculty of Princeton University and Other Provisions of Concern to the Faculty (Last Printed June 1994; Last updated March 2009).

3. vpsa1 - August 20, 2009 at 09:07 am

Dartmouth is a university, period. In addition to its undergraduate college it has a graduate school and schools of business, engineering, and medicine. It just prefers to keep the word "College" for the sake of historical nostalgia.

4. blue_state_academic - August 20, 2009 at 10:37 am

The ACTA "rankings" don't measure "what students will learn at a particular college" at all. All ACTA did was to look at on-line curricular requirements for colleges, and determine how many courses are required in areas they deem important (i.e., DWM studies).

5. drfunz - August 20, 2009 at 11:17 am

Undergraduates graduate out of Yale "College", Harvard "College", Dartmouth College - Dartmouth has simply not changed its name to reflect the breadth of its degrees and the research dimension of its mission.

6. brambeus - August 20, 2009 at 11:47 am

Some of us seem to be playing in the sand box this morning.

Don't any of you remember "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet"?

Dartmouth's excellence wouldn't be diminished whatever you chose to call it. (I was not graduated from Dartmouth.)

@bdr8y Not every faculty practice of a university is codified in a handbook. Why not check with at least one responsible source at Princeton? [First-rate reporters usually want at least two sources before going into print with a story.] I would have thought that by now all of us would be at least somewhat sceptical of written sources.

7. princeton67 - August 20, 2009 at 03:52 pm

As a son of Old Nassau, I can responsibly say yes and no to Princeton's "having professors teaching undergraduate courses (at least, from '63 to '67)." "Teaching" was the first key: a senior (associate or full) professor delivered the twice-weekly lectures, but the once-a-week preceptorial - the actual discussions, graded essays, exmainations, etc. - could be run by anyone from a PHD candidate to a endowed scholar.
"Undergraduate" was the second key: juniors and seniors, declared majors, took department mandated courses that were generally small and focused enough for the professor to deal with all on his roster. Freshmen and sophs took university-mandated distribution courses, much larger and more general in scope.
All that said, when I was a sophomore, I took a course in Homer. FRB Godolphin was the senior professor and lecturer; but my precept was run by a new Assistant Prof. named Robert Fagles. Oh, the memories

8. kirkkick - August 20, 2009 at 04:01 pm

Wow. So much for free speech. I commented on this earlier and my comment was yanked. Apparently someone deemed my perspective "abusive" in some way. I'll try this again:

These rankings don't truly represent what makes a school a good fit for an individual student. For example, is Princeton really a better school than Northwestern? I didn't attend either school, but I think theater and journalism majors at Northwestern would say their experience is of a higher caliber than they could find at Princeton. Do undergraduates at Harvard have a better quality of access to professors than, say, undergraduates at the University of Virginia? I doubt it. Harvard is notorious for shortchanging undergrads (and mollifying them with inflated grades).

What the rankings mostly reveal is that some universities are older (they've established themselves, embedded themselves in the culture of the power elite) and/or wealthier than other universities. Penn is a great university - but it vaulted in these rankings because it threw money at the problem. It doesn't mean Penn is a better education than Berkeley.

It's time to move on and let go of the interest in the USNWR rankings. The only way to accomplish that is for universities and colleges to grow some backbone and boycott the surveys.

9. kleinl - August 20, 2009 at 04:03 pm

As a university professor myself, I know what a sham the U.S. News ranking of universities and colleges has become. Why should the Chronicle give it such press to help sell its magazine to the gullible public? I still say that individual students and their families have to do their own homework to decide for themselves what is the "best" university to attend and the kind of education they want. To turn to a simplistic poll ranking in a rag magazine collecting statistics to find an answer about the "best" universities seems the height of stupidity to me.
Lawrence Klein

10. artscience - August 20, 2009 at 04:54 pm

That US News would make anything of the increase in reponse rates from 46 to 48 percent for the peer survey is a clear indication that US News is not particularly well qualified to be conducting surveys of any kind. An increase of two percent is just backgound noise, random year to year movement.

Has anyone read Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free? The whole rankings game, particularly as it is played by US News and the way colleges themselves try to exploit the rankings, is a perfect example of the idiocy Pierce describes.

11. greenhills73 - August 20, 2009 at 05:29 pm

My son wanted an Ivy League education. Economically it was out of the question. He grew sullen at the idea of attending a public university close to home. He was determined to be miserable and wanted to transfer after one semester. One semester stretched into a year and by the end of that year, he decided that an Ivy League education was no better than any other, because it was going to be his own efforts that would make the most difference. We could tell he was content, although he was still fighting it and refusing to admit it. By the end of three semesters he was trying less to hide the fact that he was content. By the end of two years we knew he was happy. Today he is starting his senior year and he's having the time of his life. He loves where he is. It is not ranked as high as Stanford or Harvard, but it turned out to be the right school for my son.

12. golly_george - August 20, 2009 at 06:12 pm

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13. mhick255 - August 20, 2009 at 08:29 pm

I have been confused by the "Best Value" rankings this year. According to US News, the "best values" are...Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Perfect choices for those budget-conscious parents among us! :) Reading their methodology (http://www.usnews.com/articles/education/best-colleges/2009/08/19/best-values-methodology.html), I see that the school's ranking in the main listings was very important in the "values" ranking, but I'm not sure that what's people are looking for when they seek the "best value" in a college. Perhaps more helpful would be a listing of "best universities for less than $5,000 per year."

14. xpertwin - August 22, 2009 at 10:25 am

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15. obfpir - August 24, 2009 at 09:31 am

mhick255, it looks like the "Best Value" rankings took into account the school's score and net cost for aided students, as well as percentage of students on need-based aid. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have outstanding need-based grant aid, even for families making up to ~$200k.

They're also using out-of-state figures for public colleges, which is probably why more state colleges aren't up there.

16. suomynona - August 25, 2009 at 05:04 pm

Anyone who's studied both at Dartmouth and at a larger, research-oriented university like Harvard or Yale would know that Dartmouth is very much a college and Harvard and Yale are very much universities, and as such these schools are very, very different in terms of their approach to undergraduate teaching and their allocation of resources. True, that Dartmouth is a 'college' by name does not necessarily make it a college in practice; but likewise the limited presence of small-scale postgraduate programs is not enough to suggest that it's truly a 'university' like Harvard. Dartmouth has relatively large graduate programs in business and medicine; but otherwise its graduate offerings don't compare in the slightest to those of Harvard or Yale, whose graduate programs are colossal by comparison. And I admit that I don't know the numbers off-hand, but I'd venture a guess that Harvard and Yale spend a considerably higher percentage of their money on funding postgraduate programs and research compared to Dartmouth. Dartmouth and Princeton stand alone in the Ivy League as primarily undergraduate institutions. That philosophy is palpable on Dartmouth's campus. Ask the faculty there how much time they spend working with graduate students.

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