October 8, 2003: Features

Best of the college rankings
Princeton may rank as best school overall, but what about the squirrels?

By Pamela Burdman ’84
Illustrations by Henry Payne ’84

It was getting downright boring – our alma mater appearing at the top of the annual college rankings time after time. Sure enough, for the fifth year out of the last six, in August Princeton placed first in the behemoth of college rankings, U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges.”

But not all rankings give a high mark to Princeton. The University doesn’t appear at all in Entrepreneur Magazine’s “First Annual Top 100 Entrepreneurial Colleges and Universities,” or in Mother Jones’s annual top-10 list of activist campuses. In 10 years, Princeton never has made that list, although Yale was named three times and Harvard at least once. (This year, Mother Jones went overseas for the winner, choosing the University of Tehran.) In its most recent ranking of America’s best sports colleges, Sports Illustrated listed Princeton 56th. The University of Texas was first, Stanford second, and Harvard – at 41st – the top-ranked Ivy.

Those in higher education circles do pay attention to some rankings, notably assessments of research prowess conducted by the National Research Council. In the most recent evaluation, which used 1993 data, 24 of Princeton’s doctoral programs were rated “distinguished,” more than all schools except Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard. But most university officials decry the “horse race” aspect of the magazine rankings, particularly the U.S. News list, saying they compare apples and oranges and imply that a college’s quality fluctuates from year to year. College counselors generally advise prospective students to take the rankings with a grain of salt.

Still, the magazine rankings are here to stay – even if only as entertainment. “Americans love ranking systems and love seeing who’s number one. It’s an American tradition,” says Washington Monthly editor Nicholas Confessore ’98, who has penned critiques of the lists. And so, here’s a look at how Princeton rates on some of the newer lists, along with some old standards.

U.S. News and World Report: Princeton first, but not alone

In the best known and most controversial of college rankings, Princeton shared first place this year with Harvard. U.S. News also ranked Princeton – known for its generous financial aid program – second for “best value,” noting that 46 percent of all students received financial aid grants and that families paid an average of $15,225 for a Princeton education. (This year, 52 percent of Princeton freshmen are receiving need-based financial aid.) As it has in the past, Princeton greeted the news with a link and a short announcement on the University homepage, noting that such rankings “cannot capture the distinctiveness of any institution.”

“I don’t think anyone doubts that Princeton is a really good school, but the rankings are really a popularity contest. Even if you assume the validity of the statistics, the gap between #1 and #20 is only four or five points on the U.S. News scale,” says Confessore.

He even ascribed a role to this magazine, which could contribute to Princeton’s number-one ranking in alumni giving (61 percent vs. Harvard’s 49), a much-criticized category that accounts for 5 percent of the U.S. News ranking. Because the magazine comes out so frequently, he suggests, it may build alumni loyalty.

Princeton Review: Great academics, and the place “runs like butter”

The test-prep outfit (founded by John Katzman ’81, hence the name) offers top-20 lists based on annual surveys of more than 100,000 students. Schools can place in 63 areas ranging from the obvious academic ones to imaginative groupings such as “Is It Food?” (this year’s booby prize went to Saint Bonaventure University), “Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton” (Bard College), “Students Most Nostalgic for Ronald Reagan” (Washington and Lee University), “Students Ignore God on a Regular Basis” (Reed College), and “Future Rotarians and Daughters of the American Revolution” (the U.S. Air Force Academy). Results are at www.princetonreview.com.

This year, Princeton earned high marks for best overall undergraduate academic experience (#2 after Yale and trailed by Duke, Amherst, and M.I.T.), and toughest to get into (#2 after the U.S. Military Academy and just ahead of Harvard and Yale). It also got nods for its library (#9) and its administration (#10) – in a category called “School Runs Like Butter.”

Women’s Wear Daily: “Tasteful conformity”

In Women’s Wear Daily’s top-10 list of “America’s Most Fashionable Colleges,” Princeton didn’t even earn an honorable mention. Princeton was one of 46 institutions relegated to a blurb in the back of the college issue, noting that its coeds “opt for tasteful conformity” with their “clean-cut, well-scrubbed . . . neo-prep Abercrombie & Fitch look.”

The fashion methodology? Admittedly loose, according to editor Bridget Foley: W.W.D. reporters visited dozens of colleges, conducted hundreds of interviews, and administered a fashion quiz to more than 1,300 students. The first-place campus, New York University, was “in a class by itself,” followed by Howard University, for its “urban and edgy . . . ‘neo-soul’ . . . recasting of the 1970s.”

Once again, Yale placed respectably – at #9, apparently largely for a lecture series on the fashion industry, featuring the likes of Diane Von Furstenberg and Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, and for chic alums like actress Jodie Foster. But the editors must have missed a freshman seminar offered several times at Princeton recently, “Getting Dressed.” The course, taught by visiting history professor Jenna Weissman-Joselit, is an inquiry into the social significance of clothing.

Seventeen magazine: Barely cool

In many of the upstart contests, where academics aren’t everything and “cool” is an operative word, Princeton is turning out to be something of an also-ran.

Old Nassau is not nearly as cool, for example, as Rice, Yale, Penn, Columbia, and Harvard, according to Seventeen. Those institutions placed first, second, sixth, 13th, and 19th in the teenybopper magazine’s premiere “50 coolest colleges” issue last October. Princeton placed a paltry 22nd. Editors said they were seeking the best college experience for girls, ranging from “frat parties to professors’ involvement, from campus safety to great shopping.”

Outside magazine: Smart — and healthy

In another new ranking, Outside editors this fall ranked Princeton 35th in its listing of the 40 “Coolest Places to Work, Play, Study, Party, and Live.” In the top slots were the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Colorado at Boulder, with Dartmouth, Cornell, and Stanford coming in at seventh, 14th, and 17th places. Outside’s crew of undergrad reporters scoured hundreds of colleges in search of the “40 schools that turn out smart grads with top-notch academic credentials, a healthy environmental ethos, and an A+ sense of adventure.”

Princeton was cited for its offerings for rowers, cyclists, and runners; its relative (70 miles) proximity to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; and the work of the Princeton Environmental Institute.

World o’ Squirrels: Critters just average

Also vying for attention among the outdoor rankings is “Jon’s World o’ Squirrels,” an online site (www.gottshall. com/squirrels/campsq.htm) that gives Princeton a three-squirrel ranking, out of five, for the black squirrels in which Princetonians take pride. (Alas, they are merely a different color type of the plain old eastern gray squirrel.) Five-squirrel leaders include the University of California at Berkeley, which was lauded for lush landscaping, and the U.S. Naval Academy.

The Princeton entry includes this observation from a field observer identified as Scrappyo: “Most of them aren’t as friendly as Penn State’s squirrels, but they are everywhere and most of them will beg.”

ePodunk: Location, location

ePodunk, a demographics and travel information company (www.epodunk.com/top10/colleges/index.html), recently named Princeton, New Jersey, the second best college town after Hanover, New Hampshire. Don’t confuse that with best college location – the company has separate rankings for big, medium-sized, and small cities, where Boston/Cambridge; Columbia, South Carolina; and Charlottesville, Virginia, respectively, placed on top. Creators of the site were looking for towns that “have a spark that comes not only from young blood, but from jazz clubs, literary events, bookstores, and cafés,” and balanced “tradition with new business growth.”

Princeton, “charming but expensive,” was cited for tree-lined streets, upscale shops, support for the public library, and preservation of historic sites, as well as for low unemployment and high per-capita income. New Haven got special points for its arts scene, and was ninth among medium-sized cities.

College Ranking Service: Do it yourself

A spoof on the other rankings, the “College Ranking Service,” at www.rankyourcollege.com, parodies U.S. News with a system that heavily weights institutional wealth. (A second ranking on the site, listed according to the “Fairness Method,” is “designed to give all colleges and universities the opportunity to be top-ranked.”) The order changes every time you refresh your browser, but Princeton, naturally, often tops the list.

“All we’re doing is what U.S. News & World Report does – jumble up the numbers and reorder them,” says the site’s founder, Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer. “They do it once a year. We do it as fast as you want.”

Pamela Burdman ’84 is a freelance journalist and former higher education reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.


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