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Just as Harvard students arrived in Cambridge early last week, campuses around the country were buzzing with the results of U.S. News and World Report's ranking of the nation's best colleges. The annual survey shook up the traditional hierarchy among the Big Three, ending Harvard's six-year streak as the top college in the nation. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. News survey dropped Harvard right past second to a lowly third, behind Yale and Princeton, respectively. Harvardians responded with a mix of consternation and indifference to the news that their alma matter had fallen from its lofty position as the undisputed best of the best. (On Yale's New Haven campus, however, screams of joy were reportedly heard over the steady stream of gunfire.)
While the ranking of colleges is an arbitrary business, necessarily imperfect and inherently subjective, we feel that if the U.S. News is going to continue its annual survey, its editors might as well find a way to reach the correct conclusions. Whatever can be said about Harvard's performance in the last year, the thought that it could be outdone by lesser schools in Connecticut and New Jersey is, well, preposterous.
Still, however absurd the thought of Harvard as anything but the leader of the pack, the results do prompt some soul-searching:
Was the admissions office erratic in its selection of the Class of 2000?
Does the specter of the Unabomber taint the image of fair Harvard?
Do analysts see randomization as the first step in Harvard's decline?
Is the restructuring of the Coop to blame?
In fact, it is unlikely that had an impact on the shift in rankings. According to "Best Colleges" supplement editor Mel Elfin, himself the recipient of a master's degree here, Harvard's drop can be attributed to a change in the criteria, rather than a decline in the quality of a Harvard education. For the first time, the percentage of classes with 50 or more students was included as part of the equation used to rank the schools. At 21 percent, Harvard more than doubles Yale's nine percent. It isn't until 31st-ranked UCLA, with 29 percent, that Harvard's class size percentage is surpassed. While Harvard has been reporting this information for years, U.S. News chose to introduce it as a component this year because it had only now received data from enough schools to make the statistic reliable.
In all seriousness, Harvard clearly has some work to do in decreasing class size. Large classes do tend to foster an impersonal learning environment, make it difficult for students to interact with professors and generally detract from an undergraduate education. The administration might start by phasing out the Core and replacing it with distribution requirements. This would widen the number of offerings available to students to fill any single requirement, diminishing class size in the process.
But even if large classes hurt Harvard, there are plenty of other factors, both tangible and intangible, which make it difficult to understand how the University could be ranked behind Yale and Princeton. The oldest, richest, most selective of the three, with the highest yield and student retention rate, Harvard has Cornel R. West '74, Crimson Cash and The Tasty.
Nouveau number-one Yale, on the other hand, finds itself stuck in a cycle of turmoil. During the last few years, it has been in a struggle to overcome financial instability and labor strife. During the spring semester, undergraduates were forced to fend for themselves at mealtime when the dining service workers went on strike. Earlier in the year, Yalies were locked out of their own classrooms when teaching fellows there battled the administration. And unlike Princeton students, Harvard sophomores have never had to live in trailers. Whatever our problems as Harvard, we've never lacked teachers, food or permanent housing. These issues aside, the survey would likely have gone differently if U.S. News had been able to quantify one crucial fact: Yale is in New Haven.
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