Harvard Tops Princeton, But Students Dismiss Rankings

Students call 'absolutely meaningless' rankings 'almost not important enough to have an opinion about'

For the first time in a dozen years, Harvard won an unchallenged first in the U.S. News "Best Colleges" ranking, an achievement that knocked Princeton off of the pedestal on which it had sat for the past eight years.

A handful of Ivy League schools plus Stanford, MIT, Caltech, the University of Chicago, and Duke round out the top ten.

Robert Morse, U.S. News' director of data research, said that because the difference between the top three schools has been small, "it didn't take a great amount of movement to push Harvard ahead of Princeton."

A few media outlets had reported that changes in class size allowed Harvard to pass Princeton, but Morse said that small changes across the board—in areas such as student retention, financial resources, faculty resources, and peer assessment score—also played a role.

While some might expect Harvard students to feel exuberant that their school won top honors, the response among students was largely dismissive.

"I think it is absolutely meaningless," John S. Sheffield '09, a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House, said of the rankings in a phone interview. "Unless these indicators really mean something to students, these rankings don't really mean anything except hype."

Leo P. Zimmermann '09, a social studies concentrator in Currier House, expressed similar sentiments.

"It's almost not important enough to have an opinion about," he said. "Unfortunately, it is also already clichéd for someone from Harvard to dismiss the rankings as unimportant while basking in the secret delight of being officially 'the best.'"

Even the student body's head cheerleader, Undergraduate Council President Matthew L. Sundquist, said that he didn't "even want to get started on" on the U.S. News methodology.

"But overall, I think it's awesome we're number one," he added. "I love Harvard, and I think it's a great place."

Hostility to the magazine's rankings has long been widespread among higher education leaders, some of whom have tried in the past to organize university presidents against the rankings.

In May 2007, the advocacy group the Education Conservancy asked college and university presidents to sign a letter refusing to fill out the reputation portion of the U.S. News questionnaire.

“We believe these rankings are misleading and do not serve well the interests of prospective students in finding a college or university that is well suited to their education beyond high school,” the presidents said in the letter.

The presidents said that the rankings encourage "gamesmanship" as universities stretch definitions and massage data in order to improve their place in the rankings.

Morse, the U.S. News official, conceded that the rankings' methodology, which bases its measurements on different statistics as well as a subjective score based on peer reputation, has its flaws.

"We're not measuring learning or what goes on in the classroom," Morse said. "So, our rankings are not perfect, but we think an aggregation of our data using our methodology is a road to measuring the merits of an institution."

Morse added that colleges—not high school students and parents, who he said use the rankings "responsibly" as only one factor in their decision—are the ones who are creating hype about the rankings.

"The colleges are creating the frenzy, and it's not U.S. News," he said. "The colleges are the ones who have given U.S. News credibility in the marketplace."

For Harvard's part, Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Robert P. Mitchell was nearly as dismissive of the results as were the students.

"It's nice to be recognized in this fashion, but our admissions officers would certainly tell prospective students that they should look for selective colleges based on their own needs and not how a university or college is positioned in a ranking," Mitchell said.

The recent effort among some college leaders to discredit the rankings is part of a long history of attacks on what The Chronicle of Higher Education has termed "higher education's favorite punching bag."

In the mid-1990s, then-Stanford President Gerhard Casper helped organize a movement called FUNC, or the "Forget U.S. News Coalition." Casper urged his fellow college presidents to not answer the subjective reputation evaluation that is the largest share of the ranking.

And before that, Reed College unilaterally stopped providing data to U.S. News, forcing the magazine to resort to using data that the college releases publicly. As a result, the Portland-based school, widely considered to be one of the best colleges in the U.S., is ranked fifty-fourth in U.S. News's most recent ranking of liberal arts colleges.

While Harvard has continued to participate in the rankings and University officials have not been as vocal as critics like Casper, Harvard does not fill out the subjective reputation survey, as Casper urged.

This year, the overall response rate to the peer survey was just 46 percent, though it was a bit higher—56 percent—in the "national universities" group of which Harvard is a part, according to Morse.

Morse said that U.S. News is making the best use of data that colleges and universities make available to them and that it is impossible to get student feedback because schools would not allow the magazine access to students.

He added that rankings which do rely on student feedback—like the Princeton Review—do it in a way that is neither "sophisticated" nor "statistically significant."

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu.