For the second year in a row, Harvard University tops the U.S.News & World Report rankings of America's Best Colleges, but this time it has company. By edging up slightly in the 15 indicators of academic excellence that U.S. News uses to compile the rankings, Princeton University tied Harvard for first place on the list of national universities. Among the liberal arts colleges, Williams College edged out Amherst College. Last year, those two Massachusetts schools tied for first place in that category.
The new lists mark the 26th edition of U.S. News's annual college rankings. In recent years, Harvard University's sterling academic reputation appears to have been bolstered by the Cambridge, Mass., school's decision in December 2007 to increase significantly the financial aid awards it grants. Students from families that earn less than $60,000 per year don't have to pay any costs to attend, and those from families that earn between $60,000 and $180,000 per year will pay no more than 10 percent of their annual income. For most Harvard students (about 60 percent), these policies add up to a big discount off the elite university's $52,000-per-year sticker price. In another financial aid innovation, Harvard recently announced a program to help its international students secure student loans on their own. Previously, international students could get such loans only with a U.S. resident as a cosigner. Harvard fittingly also claims first place on the U.S. News list of schools that offer the best financial aid.
For Princeton, the No. 1 ranking means a return to the top after slipping to second place last year. The New Jersey college is kicking off several new initiatives this school year. In the fall, 20 entering freshmen will spend their first year of college overseas doing community service work in Peru, Ghana, Serbia, or India. It's a test to see how "gap years" or "bridge years," in which high school graduates do a year of travel and work before starting their freshman year of college, should be integrated into the university's overall program of study. In years to come, as many as 100 first-year students each fall could enroll in the program. Princeton is also one of six universities participating in the test-drive of how Amazon's electronic book, the Kindle, can be used in college classrooms. Students and faculty in select courses will use the devices as textbooks.
The U.S. News & World Report rankings measure up to 15 indicators of academic performance for each college and university. Quantitative data that assess a college's performance in areas such as graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, financial resources, student selectivity, and alumni giving account for 75 percent of a college's score. The other 25 percent is based on a peer assessment survey the magazine sends to top officials at each school asking them to rate the other colleges in their category. Each year, the ranking methodology is reassessed to stay current with developments in higher education. For example, in recent years, U.S. News has incorporated more data about the proportion of low-income students that a school enrolls into its ranking measurements just as most selective colleges have made efforts to recruit more disadvantaged students.
These periodic methodology adjustments make flat year-to-year comparisons of a school's U.S. News ranking somewhat misleading. Nevertheless, alumni tend to take note of which schools have gained an edge on their academic rivals. That might be harder to do this year because of the number of ties on the list. In addition to the Princeton-Harvard tie for first in the national universities list, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tied with its West Coast rival, the California Institute of Technology, for fourth place. And college football fans should note that the University of Florida and the University of Texas-Austin—both contending for the top spot in the preseason gridiron rankings—are also locked in a tie on the U.S. News academic rankings in the 47th slot.