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What Do 'Best College' Rankings Tell Us? Anything?

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Harvard University tops the most-recent 'U.S. News & World Report' rankings of the 'best colleges' in the U.S.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America

U.S. News & World Report has released its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities. Topping the lists of national universities — "large, research-oriented universities" — and liberal arts colleges — "a category of schools that place a higher emphasis on undergraduate education": Harvard University and Williams College, respectively.

U.S. News says that, "though the top-ranked schools garner much acclaim, the rankings aren't produced simply to benefit students who are considering attending institutions like Harvard and Williams."

I won't speculate on the magazine's motives, but these lists don't seem to change very much from year to year.

Sure, the top 20 schools in both categories are rearranged annually, depending on undergraduate academic reputation, graduation and freshman retention, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, and the alumni giving rate, among other things, but what does it really mean if, say, Harvard University supplants another Ivy League school, or the California Institute of Technology falls to No. 7? When I looked at schools, I was more-impressed by qualitative differences than quantitative ones. The quad! The library! The food! The stories about that much-beloved professor!

To be fair, U.S. News has compiled some new rankings: "There is a list of the best schools for B studentsrankings of historically black colleges and universities, as well as rankings of the most diverse national universities," Brian Burnsed notes. "And though the worst of the financial crisis seems to have passed, finding value in the increasingly expensive world of higher education is still one of the most important — if not the most important — factors in choosing a school."

To meet that need, U.S. News has compiled best value lists for national universities and national liberal arts colleges, which rank schools based on the average cost of attending — after need-based grants are taken into account — relative to their academic ranking.

Other periodicals and organizations have created their own college guides. Topping the Washington Monthly's lists, which rates schools "based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (pencouraging students to give something back to their country): Amherst College and the University of California, Berkeley.

Forbes ranks colleges and universities "on the quality of the education they provide, the experience of their students and how much their graduates achieve," reviewing "only 9 percent of the 6,600 accredited postsecondary institutions in the U.S." Some familiar names here: Williams College, Princeton University, Amherst College, the United States Military Academy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, etc.

Fundamentally, more and more students are applying to more and more schools. Last year, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, Cal Poly, New York University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and UCLA received record numbers of applications. That, coupled with the fact that colleges are capping enrollment because of budget cuts, has made college admissions even more competitive.

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