Harvard and Princeton hold the top in latest US News rankings of the nation's colleges

Friday, August 20th 2004, 8:42 am
By: News On 6

Budget cuts appear to have done little harm to the quality of America's state-supported universities _ at least the way U.S. News & World Report measures it. Public universities generally hold their own in the magazine's latest college rankings.

But private universities continue to dominate, holding each of the top 20 spots among national universities in the latest survey, which hits newsstands Monday. Harvard and Princeton share the top spot for the second straight year, Princeton's fifth straight with at least a share of No. 1.

Yale was third, followed by the University of Pennsylvania and a three-way tie for No. 5 between Duke, MIT and Stanford. Cal Tech, Columbia and Dartmouth round out the top 10 in rankings that saw few changes among top schools from a year ago.

Williams was the top-ranked liberal arts college, followed by Amherst and Swarthmore, which tied for second. Cal Tech was considered the best value among national universities based on ranking and price, including financial aid.

Among public universities, the University of California-Berkeley held its ranking from a year ago at No. 21 as the top-rated public university. It was followed at 22 by the Universities of Virginia and Michigan-Ann Arbor, and UCLA at 25.

The rankings are generated by a formula that includes variables such as graduation and retention rates, faculty and financial resources, applicant selectivity and the percentage of alumni who donate money to their alma mater.

They are both reviled and breathlessly awaited by college administrators, who insist no formula can capture the value of a college experience but have been forced to acknowledge the enormous role rankings play in the minds of many applicants and parents.

Brian Kelly, the magazine's executive editor, said he wasn't surprised that top public schools held their own. While budget cuts can affect components of the magazine's formula, such as class size and financial resources, usually it takes a while for any impact to be felt. The budget outlook in many states has improved lately, and some of the funding that had been cut is being restored.

``A lot of these budget cuts, they don't necessarily have an immediate impact on the school,'' he said. ``It takes time for the school to work their way through.''

The magazine made no real changes to the formula this year. A year ago, the magazine stopped factoring in a college's yield _ the percentage of accepted applicants who decide to enroll _ after concerns were raised colleges could manipulate their practices to get a better score. Kelly said the fact that scores changed so little the year following the change shows colleges weren't doing that.

Princeton issued a statement saying administrators there ``were pleased to be recognized as one of many outstanding universities'' but that formulaic rankings ``cannot capture the distinctiveness of any institution or whether one or another university might be an appropriate match for any individual student.''

Harvard did not respond to requests for comment.