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The U.S. News and World Report college rankings: A public vs. private dilemma

Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkeley. (AP/Eric Risberg)

There was a time in the 1980s when the University of California at Berkeley was deemed a top-five national university on the most prominent annual ranking in higher education, up there with Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. No longer.

Nowadays one of the most prestigious public institutions in the world, with seven Nobel laureates on its faculty, can barely crack the top 20 in U.S. News and World Report’s list of best national universities. For the third straight year, according to rankings released Wednesday, UC-Berkeley is No. 20 on that list. It sits just behind Rice, Notre Dame and 17 other private universities that are rearranged very slightly, if at all, from year to year.

[See the 2015 U.S. News top 25 national universities.]

“UC-Berkeley does very well on just about every ranking, except for U.S. News,” university Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “We compete for undergraduates very successfully (against all of the top 20 schools) and offer great programs for them, but the metrics for the U.S. News ranking seem ill suited to reflect our excellence, or for that matter any of the great flagship publics.”

Does this bother him? “My lips are sealed,” Dirks said.

Princeton, Harvard and Yale rank first, second and third, respectively, for the third straight year. Johns Hopkins University landed in the Top 10 for the first time in 16 years, tied for 10th with the California Institute of Technology.

[See the 2015 U.S. News ranking trends.]

After Berkeley, the top-ranked public universities are UCLA (23rd overall), the University of Virginia (26th) and the University of Michigan (29th). This elite quartet has been frozen in the 20-to-29 range for several years.

U.S. News does list what it calls the “top public universities.” But it doesn’t have a list of “top private universities.” The magazine reasons that consumers want to compare the two sectors.

“U.S. News & World Report believes that public and private schools should be ranked together in the overall rankings since they generally compete for the same undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, sports conferences, research grants and international partners,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist for the magazine.

Perennially controversial, the ranking formula is based on school reputation surveys; student selectivity; faculty resources; alumni giving; graduation and retention rates; and total spending per student on education. Public universities, relying heavily on state funding, often have tighter budgets, far larger enrollment and a broader mandate for accessibility than private institutions. Those factors constrain them under the U.S. News system.

One public school that has risen — but a special case — is the federally funded U.S. Naval Academy. It cracked the top 10 for the first time on the U.S. News list of national liberal arts colleges, moving from 13th to a tie for 9th with private Davidson and Claremont McKenna colleges. The liberal arts list encompasses about 250 schools that focus on undergraduate education. It is routinely headed by Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore colleges, in that order.

Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr., the superintendent at Annapolis, said he was “pleased” that the rankings “continue to confirm the Naval Academy’s reputation for providing an excellent undergraduate education.”

Among the largest gainers on the national university list were Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, up 36 places to 153rd; the University of Illinois at Chicago (up 20, to 129th); and Immaculata University (up 20, to 161st). Tulane rose 13 places, to 41st.

The University of Maryland at College Park rose five places, to 57th, tied with the University of Connecticut.

In the District of Columbia, Howard rose 10 places to 135th. Georgetown remained 21st. Catholic fell seven places, to 123rd. George Washington edged down three spots to 57th. American fell one notch, to 72nd. All are private.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said it’s possible to compare public and private “when you have measures that are fair to both sectors.” Kelchen oversees the Washington Monthly rankings, which weigh what schools contribute through public service, research and social mobility.

UC-Berkeley ranks fourth on that list, ahead of No. 5 Stanford. Princeton is 26th.

The top 25 national universities ranked by U.S. News, and their annual change in position.
1. Princeton University — unchanged
2. Harvard University — unchanged
3. Yale University — unchanged
4. Columbia University — unchanged
4. Stanford University — unchanged
4. University of Chicago — unchanged
7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology — unchanged
8. Duke University — unchanged
9. University of Pennsylvania – down 1
10. California Institute of Technology — unchanged
10. Johns Hopkins University – up 2
12. Dartmouth College – down 1
12. Northwestern University – up 1
14. Brown University – up 2
15. Washington University in St. Louis – down 1
15. Cornell University — unchanged
15. Vanderbilt University – up 1
18. University of Notre Dame – down 2
18. Rice University – up 1
20. University of California-Berkeley — unchanged
21. Emory University — unchanged
21. Georgetown University — unchanged
23. University of California-Los Angeles — unchanged
23. Carnegie Mellon University – up 2
23. University of Southern California – up 2