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Harvard Ties for Top College Ranking

By Carol P. Choy, Crimson Staff Writer

It may not be lonely at the top but the view is sweet.

For the first time in five years, Harvard came out number one in the U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings.

In this year’s “Best Colleges” issue, which hit newsstands Aug. 25, the Crimson tied Princeton for the top spot after second and third-place finishes in recent years.

Yale and M.I.T. took the third and fourth spots, respectively.

“We’re pleased when other organizations recognize the best possible education we try to offer our students,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Robert P. Mitchell said of the recognition.

“It’s always flattering to be appreciated,” said Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. “But there are a lot of better reasons to choosing a college besides ordinal ranking.”

Since publishing its first “Best Colleges” issue in 1983, U.S. News has claimed that the rankings serve as an objective guide to help students and parents pick a college.

“We produce these rankings for the benefit of students and families attempting to make a very important—and very expensive—life decision,” U.S. News spokesperson Robert Folkers wrote in an e-mail.

But officials in many academic institutions have criticized the rankings as arbitrary, citing the list’s yearly fluctuations as evidence that it is not a credible reflection of schools’ academic quality.

“Publications are in the business for selling publications. The data are helpful and can be interesting for people to make dimensional comparisons, but the rankings, calculated on some abstract level, no one should take too seriously,” McGrath Lewis said.

According to the U.S. News website, the rankings are based on weighted “indicators of academic excellence,” such as faculty and financial resources; the numbers are then plugged into a formula that produces a raw score from which the rankings are created.

U.S. News makes changes to their formula from year-to-year. This year U.S. News made a significant alteration, dropping admissions yield, the percent of all accepted students who choose to attend a college, from the calculation. Folkers said this was done after meetings with university representatives revealed that some schools relied on early decision programs to help manipulate their yield in order to improve their rankings. Previously, yield made up 1.5 percent of a school’s total rank index score.

While McGrath Lewis noted that Harvard has always had an “exceptionally high yield” that “might have helped us in the past,” the change in methodology didn’t seem to hurt the College. Harvard’s index score increased 2 percentage points over last year.

U.S. News has been discussing the elimination of high school class rankings from next year’s survey, according to Folkers.

This year’s issue also ranked the top 150 schools, whereas previous years rated just the top 50 institutions in the nation.

When it comes to advising current high school seniors, both ranking advocates and opponents agree that the U.S. News lists are no panacea.

“We stress in our office that students should be looking for good matches which deal with various qualities of a college. Ratings obscure that, [and instead] are a game of climbing ladder, where the motivation is to try to get into the highest rated college they can,” said John Anderson, director of college counseling at Phillips Academy Andover.

Folkers of U.S. News agrees, “A college ranking alone—ours or anyone else’s—is no way to pick a college. A ranking can be a useful tool, but it is far from the only tool.”

—Staff writer Carol P. Choy can be reached at choy@fas.harvard.edu.

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