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Deciphering U.S. News & World Report's 2012 best-college rankings

September 13, 2011 |  3:11 pm

Harvard

U.S. News & World Report has released its annual list of what the magazine calls the nation's best colleges. If you're wondering whether people still care about this list, here's your answer:  The U.S. News & World Report website kept crashing Tuesday afternoon. 

In the national university category, Harvard University and Princeton University tied for first place. Yale University was ranked No. 3; Columbia University came in at fourth; and there was a five-way tie for the fifth spot between Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania.

Among national liberal arts colleges, Williams College came in first, followed by Amherst College and then Swarthmore College. Pomona College came in fourth, and Middlebury College placed fifth.

This is the 28th year that U.S. News & World Report has ranked the nation's colleges. Back when the publication started compiling the list in the mid-1980s, the rankings were based on a survey sent to college presidents and deans asking them to list the best schools. Over time, the amount of data taken into consideration has grown to include student SAT scores, graduation rates, student/faculty ratios, the percent of students who graduated at the top of their class, alumni giving, and spending per student -- among other factors.

"I would say in total the rankings are based on how rich you are, how selective you are, and how famous you are," said Kevin Carey, policy director for the education think tank Education Sector in Washington, D.C.

He's publicly questioned the value of the Best College Rankings and, in an interview with The Times, said: "It's basically assessing how close to Harvard you are, which is why Harvard is always No. 1."

One piece of data that is not included in determining the rankings is how much money students earn after graduation. Carey said the U.S. News listing doesn't include that information, not because of some ethical choice, but because nobody has calculated that data.

"There is not currently a list of how much graduates of every college make, but there could be and there might be soon," he said.

Now that would be interesting.

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image credit: Harvard University tied for first place in the national university category. Surprised? Armando Arorizo  / For the Los Angeles Times

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