U.S. News college rankings contain no surprises

A Harvard University logo

Harvard topped the national U.S. News college rankings for 2011, but these days most students are just looking for a good deal on a quality education. Patricia Drury/Flickr photo.

The U.S. News college rankings were released Tuesday, and guess what: Harvard is number one … again. Princeton is in second place … once more. On a podium bearing a distinct Ivy League bias, Yale is number three. But those are the national college rankings: a predictable list of well-moneyed heavyweights that is often criticized as meaningless by folks in academia. However, the U.S. News Best Colleges 2011 offers a useful matrix that students and parents can use to help decide which school is best for them, even though some higher education pundits would disagree.

How U.S. News and World Report ranks colleges

The U.S. News college rankings sort schools into categories for comparison. Best Colleges 2011 groups American colleges and universities by factors such as the highest level of degrees conferred by discipline. The 1,400-plus accredited schools were divided into four main groupings: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges. The schools in the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories are placed into four geographic regions: North, South, Midwest and West. Data on up to 16 indicators of academic quality are gathered from each school and tabulated. Colleges are ranked in their categories by their total weighted score.

Critics think national college rankings are a joke

The U.S. News and World Report college rankings are just one of many such compendiums of higher education. Princeton Review offers a comprehensive evaluation of U.S. schools, but the only thing about the Princeton Review list that gets any attention are the Princeton top party schools. Higher education critics take a list like the U.S. News Best Colleges 2011 more seriously. But Lynn O’Shaughnessy at CBS MoneyWatch said the rankings are a joke. She writes that U.S. News doesn’t try to measure the type of learning taking place at schools across the country.  Instead U.S. News and World Report is simply conducting a high-stakes beauty contest, where 25 percent of each school’s score is based solely on its reputation.

Value is the most important factor today

For the past 10 years, Harvard or Princeton have taken turns or shared the No. 1 spot on the U.S. News college rankings every year since 2001. But for the majority of students, David Gura at NPR writes that topping the national college rankings  is irrelevant. Colleges are cutting budgets and capping enrollment. More students are requesting to more schools. College admissions are more competitive than ever. U.S. News college rankings evaluate schools by academic reputation, graduation, freshman retention, faculty resources, alumni giving and financial resources. But in the increasingly expensive world of higher education, finding value is still one of the most important — if not the most important — factors in choosing a school.

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