U.S. News rankings spotlight Princeton, Williams, UCLA, NYU

UCLA moved up to a tie with its sister University of California campus in Berkeley for bragging rights among top public schools. New York University cracked the top 30 on the national university list. And West Point leapfrogged Annapolis on the liberal arts college ranking.

Those were a few of the takeaways Tuesday as U.S. News & World Report released its new college and university rankings, an annual sorting exercise that draws scrutiny from students, parents and alumni but scorn from critics who say it’s a pointless game of prestige.

Two schools have a lock on No. 1: Princeton University topped the U.S. News national university list for the seventh straight year, and Williams College led the liberal arts list for the 15th straight year.

Factors in the rankings include graduation and retention rates, surveys of college officials and high school counselors, spending on faculty and selectivity in admissions. Many educators complain that the formula is tilted in favor of the wealthiest and most exclusive schools, especially private ones, and does not adequately reflect the diversity of students served, the quality of teaching or the career paths open to alumni after graduation.

This year, for the first time, U.S. News said its website will include salary data for alumni of individual schools, supplied by the online analyst PayScale. But that data is not factored into its rankings. In recent years, rival rankings from analysts such as Money and the Wall Street Journal have incorporated some type of salary data.

“Using salary as a heavily weighted rankings factor ignores academic quality, which we believe is more important for prospective students and their parents when considering which school to attend,” Robert Morse, chief data strategist for U.S. News, said in a statement. “Not everyone is interested in a high-salaried career. Secondly, the salary data — while important — is not comprehensive enough to do an analytic school-by-school comparison.”

With only slight changes in methodology, U.S. News tends to get very similar results year to year. The only new wrinkle in the top five national universities was that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology moved up from seventh a year ago to a tie for fifth with Columbia and Stanford universities.

But tiny statistical ripples can lead to intriguing variations.

Among public universities, UC-Berkeley has long been pre-eminent, holding the top ranking for 20 years in a row. But it shares that distinction this year for the first time with UCLA, a school in rising demand. Last year, UCLA became the first university in the country to report more than 100,000 applicants for freshman admission.

“UCLA takes great pride in the excellent academic achievements of our faculty and students, and I am grateful that their high level of accomplishment is reflected in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking,” the school’s chancellor, Gene Block, said in a statement.

UCLA and UC-Berkeley tied for 21st on the national list with two private schools: Emory University and the University of Southern California.

The only new school among the top 30 national universities is NYU, which moved from 36th to a tie for 30th with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With more than 50,000 students and degree-granting campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, NYU has sought to stake a claim in recent years as a new type of global, private research university.

“Our reaction is one of pleasure and satisfaction that the strategic priorities that NYU has set itself over the past couple of decades are starting to be reflected in strong recent rankings,” Andrew Hamilton, NYU’s president, said in a telephone interview Monday after he landed in New York on a flight from Abu Dhabi. (Schools and media were given a preview of the rankings.) But he cautioned: “Inevitably, the distillation of a complex university like NYU into a single number is never an exact science.”

Among national liberal arts colleges, which focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in arts and sciences, the top 10 had few variations. Among the shifts: Washington & Lee University moved from 11th to 10th, while Bowdoin College (previously sixth) and Swarthmore College (previously fourth) tied Wellesley College for third.

A bit further down the list, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which had been 19th, jumped to 12th. And the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, which had been 12th, fell to 21st. That gave Army a fresh talking point in its rivalry with Navy. It was the first time since 2009-10 that West Point had led Annapolis on the list.

Annapolis took the news in stride. “Nothing that we do here is in pursuit of a ranking,” Cmdr. David McKinney, a Naval Academy spokesman, said. “We’re here to train midshipmen – morally, mentally and physically.” But McKinney took note of an upcoming date of reckoning between the academies, a football game to be held in Philadelphia. “On Dec. 9, we hope that we are at least one more point successful than they are,” he said.

Here are this year’s top five U.S. News national universities:

1)Princeton

2)Harvard

3)U. of Chicago (tie)

3)Yale (tie)

5)Columbia (tie)

5)MIT (tie)

5)Stanford (tie)

Here are the top five U.S. News national liberal arts colleges:

1)Williams

2)Amherst

3)Bowdoin (tie)

3)Swarthmore (tie)

3)Wellesley (tie)

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