Harvard Tops U.S News 2011 College Rankings, Princeton Is No. 2

Harvard University took sole possession of first place in U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 rankings of top U.S. academic research institutions. Princeton University, which tied with Harvard for the lead last year, fell to second place.

Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was named the top liberal arts college. Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Princeton, in Princeton, New Jersey, have held the top two spots since the 2001 rankings. Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, was ranked third and Columbia University, in New York, rose to fourth place, according to the magazine, which announced the lists today.

U.S. News’s ratings, begun in 1983, are based on criteria such as student test scores, selectivity and peer evaluations. This year, the methodology was tweaked to add evaluations from high school counselors and to give more weight to graduation and retention rates, said Robert Morse, director of data research. As a result, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, and the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, fell to seventh place after being tied for fourth last year, Morse said. The change in how graduation rates are counted hurt the rankings of Cal Tech and MIT, where more students struggle to graduate, Morse said.

“They’re very tough academically,” Morse said. “The curriculum at those schools is very rigorous.”

Cal Tech graduated 89 percent of its students in 2009, while MIT had a 91 percent graduation rate. Columbia, which was ranked eighth a year ago, graduated 98 percent of its students.

Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, and the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, tied for fifth.

Liberal Arts

Among liberal arts colleges, which are smaller than research universities and don’t typically offer graduate degrees, Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, was second, followed by Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, in third. Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vermont, and Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, tied for fourth. Those schools were the top five last year as well.

The presidents of Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore said in 2007 they wouldn’t use the ratings to promote their colleges and would only provide the magazine with information they give other college guides.

“The rankings encourage students to think about the wrong things when they engage in the college search process,” said Adam Falk, the current president of Williams, in an e-mail yesterday. “Students should be looking for the college that is the best fit for them -- for their interests, their personality, and their academic aspirations -- rather than chasing the false prestige associated with a meaningless higher ranking.”

Morse said the rankings were never intended to be the sole source students use to make decisions.

“U.S. News tries to stress that the rankings should only be used as one tool,” Morse said. “It’s to provide information to help people make an informed choice.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Oliver Staley in New York at ostaley@bloomberg.net

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