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Posted at 10:37 AM ET, 09/13/2011

At the top of the U.S. News rankings, a five-way tie

This year’s U.S. News rankings, released today, yielded an unusual five-way tie among the Top 10 national universities, a scenario that may thwart those students intent on applying to the five top schools.

Tied for fifth on that list, in alphabetical order: CalTech, MIT, Stanford, UChicago and UPenn.

There’s more movement than usual at the top of the rankings this year. Harvard and Princeton are tied for first, where last year they were 1-2; Yale and Columbia are at 3 and 4, unchanged; but Duke has dropped from 9 to 10, and Dartmouth has fallen from 9 (in a tie with Duke) to 11. UChicago, also tied for 9 last year, rises four spots.

The next nine places are, by contrast, identical to last year: Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Washington in St. Louis, Brown, Cornell, Rice, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Emory.

Georgetown drops one slot to 22, passed by Berkeley. Is this the beginning of a shift in the long trend of top public schools being shut out of the top? Perhaps not. The University of Virginia retains its 25 position, and William and Mary drops from 31 to 33.

More baby steps: George Washington University ascends from 51 to 50, and the University of Maryland climbs from 56 to 55. Virginia Tech drops from 69 to 71. American University, which has soared in the rankings of late, dips from 79 to 82.

On the liberal arts side, the top three positions go to Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore, like last year. The big winners are the Claremont colleges in California, a small consortium of private campuses that have proven a model of efficiency and seem to grow more prestigious every year. Pomona College, the crown jewel of that system, ascends from 6 to 4 in the rankings. Claremont McKenna, close behind, rises from 11 to 9.

Wellesley dips from 4 to 6, and Davidson College falls from 9 to 11.

Virginia’s best liberal arts schools had a banner year. Washington and Lee rose from 14 to 12 on the rankings, passing Vassar and Wesleyan. The University of Richmond climbs five places to 27.

The U.S. Naval Academy rises two spots to 14. Smith College, once in the lib-arts Top 10, falls from 14 to 19.

Some of the most notable achievements in this year’s rankings are on the back pages, recognizing schools that lack 11-figure endowments but compete with Harvard and Amherst in pedagogy.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, one of higher education’s rising stars, makes another estimable showing on the Top 10 list of schools with the “Best Undergraduate Teaching.”

Consider its company: Dartmouth, Princeton and Miami-Ohio are just above UMBC on the list; Yale, Brown, Stanford, William and Mary and Berkeley are below.

UMBC has figured prominently on that list for multiple years. It also ranks #1 this year on a U.S. News list of Up-And-Coming Schools, with George Mason at #2. Though it’s not quite so prominent as the overall national university rankings, these accomplishments have “brought more visibility to the university,” said Freeman Hrabowski, the UMBC president. “Being compared to Stanford in commitment to undergraduate teaching, all of that has been good.”

Georgetown ranks in the Top 10 nationally in the estimation of high school counselors, signifying that the academic prestige of D.C.’s top university exceeds its overall U.S. News rank.

Loyola University Maryland ranks third on the regional list of master’s universities, and James Madison University in Virginia ranks sixth on a comparable list of southern institutions.

One more note:

In an essay published this week by Inside Higher Ed, the president of Vassar College offers an interesting new critique of the premiere college rankings.

Bob Morse, who runs the rankings, has been assailed from all sides for any number of factors the rankings do not consider. Morse has tweaked the rankings over the years to add and subtract factors and to change their relative weight.

One recurring criticism is that the rankings should measure schools on diversity, and particularly the presence of disadvantaged students on campus.

Morse does, in fact, rank schools according to ethnic diversity. But the core rankings don’t directly consider that variable, nor family income.

Vassar President Catharine Hill proposes a way that they could. Taking a list of the top liberal arts schools from last year’s rankings, Hill rates each school according to its success in enrolling low-income students, as measured by federal Pell grants.

Hill computes an “expected” share of disadvantaged students for each school, based on its selectivity, and compares it to the actual percentage of disadvantaged students enrolled at the school. She does a similar calculation for students receiving need-based aid.

Here is how some of the top schools score:

At Williams College, based on selectivity, it would be expected that 16 percent of students are disadvantaged. In fact, 18 percent of Williams students receive Pell grants.

Amherst fares even better, with an “expected” Pell population of 15 percent and an actual population of 20 percent.

Swarthmore, Pomona, Vassar and Wesleyan all serve more disadvantaged students than one would expect, given their selectivity. Middlebury, Wellesley, Bowdoin, Carleton, Davidson, Haverford and Claremont McKenna all serve fewer disadvantaged students than one would expect.

By  |  10:37 AM ET, 09/13/2011

Categories:  Admissions, Liberal Arts, Pedagogy, Rankings | Tags:  Washington and Lee University, University of Virginia, University of Maryland, Georgetown University

 
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