Princeton Is No

Princeton Is No. 1: 'U.S. News' Rankings Are Inadvertently Released Early


The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 31, 2000




Princeton University has reclaimed the title of top national university in this year's rankings by U.S. News & World Report, displacing the California Institute of Technology, which fell to fourth after topping the list a year ago.


Harvard and Yale Universities also leapfrogged over Caltech, tying for second. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was fifth, Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania tied for sixth, Duke University was eighth, Dartmouth College, ninth, and Columbia and Cornell Universities tied for tenth.


Colleges have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. News rankings, which are part of the magazine's annual college issue.

Higher-education officials care intensely about how they fare in the annual survey, but many have criticized the rankings for seeming to give a false sense of precision to the subtle art of finding the best college for an individual student. Others have complained about the survey's methodology, which undergoes what they see as arbitrary changes from year to year.


One such change cost Caltech its crown, according to an article in the magazine. Last year, write the authors, Robert J. Morse and Samuel M. Flanigan, the magazine modified the system to fully weight differences in institutional spending per student.


But advisers to the project noted that they had failed to factor in how much of that money went to graduate and medical students. This year, figures on research spending were logarithmically adjusted according to the ratio of undergraduate to graduate students.


"One consequence was that a small number of institutions that are strong in the sciences and had moved up significantly in the rankings last year, including the California Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, slipped back," they write.


Although some information about the rankings became available Wednesday, they were originally supposed to be posted Friday on the U.S. News Web site. However, an unexplained snafu meant that in some places, copies of the hot-selling issue and its much-debated data were released early.


Despite the premature release, U.S. News officials declined to comment further.


Richard Folkers, director of media relations, said that U.S. News did not know what information had been leaked, or how it had happened. "These books were printed in July," he said. "We don't send them under armed guard to bookstores."


As always, the rankings were eagerly anticipated and greatly disputed, even before they came out. One critic, Nicholas Thompson who dissected them recently in The Washington Monthly, spent his student days at Stanford crusading against the rankings. (See an article from The Chronicle, August 28.) In an interview, Mr. Thompson called this year's results "predictable."


When Caltech emerged as last year's leader, U.S. News officials were shocked, he said. "They need a ranking system that people are going to believe, and people aren't going to believe it if Caltech is No. 1."


He added that Caltech was so substantially ahead of its competitors last year that only a significant change in the methodology could have caused it to drop. Conceding that this year's adjustment was "not illogical," he said nevertheless that the year-to-year fluctuations show that the rankings have been seriously flawed all along.


Current measures include academic reputation, retention rate, freshman retention rate, graduation rates, faculty resources, and class size.


In other categories, U.S. News named Amherst College as the top national liberal-arts college, and the Universities of Virginia and of California at Berkeley as the top public institutions. The rankings will be available on Friday on the magazine's Web site.


Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education