Much Ado About College Rankings

A controversial list comes out with few surprises at the top but with one dramatic shift among elite colleges

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Kelly-Mooney Photography / Corbis

A modern sculpture stands in a square on the campus of Princeton University, New Jersey, ca. 1996.

And the winner (yawn) is... U.S. News and World Report issued its annual college rankings this week, with Princeton beating Harvard as top university and Yale coming in third. Just like last year. Williams edged out Amherst as the best liberal-arts college. Again, just like the list that came out 12 months ago. Except for one dramatic shift (which I will get to shortly), the new rankings don't look much different from previous lists, despite the recent organized rebellion against the magazine's long-criticized method of pitting school against school. So far this year, 62 college presidents have signed a letter pledging to stop filling out the U.S. News reputational survey, which accounts for 25% of a school's overall score.

But here is the noteworthy difference. New York's Sarah Lawrence College fell from the highly coveted top-50 tranche of liberal-arts institutions to a no-man's-land of 18 unranked schools few readers are likely to have heard of. (Bryn Athyn College of the New Church, anyone?) Sarah Lawrence had been ranked No. 45, but because the school decided to stop collecting applicants' SAT scores Sarah Lawrence is no longer listed anywhere near its highly competitive peers. In an essay published in the Washington Post last March, the college's president emeritus complained publicly that U.S. News was planning to calculate a peer-based statistic, or as she said, to "make up a number," to fill this important ranking criterion.

Will the quality of its student body suffer as a result? Perhaps. The annual rankings are a popular shortcut among parents and students overwhelmed by the similarly slick brochures and similarly staggering price tags put out by competing colleges. But Sarah Lawrence is hoping it will continue to attract applicants who have done their homework and figured out that the rankings come from an arbitrary formula that doesn't shed much light on how well a school educates its students.

To help on that end, Sarah Lawrence is participating in U-CAN, a soon-to-be-launched database by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities that will enable prospective students to make apples-to-apples comparisons of participating schools. And in June, some two months before Sarah Lawrence discovered it had been relegated to the rankings' equivalent of Siberia, the school decided it would not only stop participating in the U.S. News reputational survey, but would no longer provide any data whatsoever to the magazine. "Sarah Lawrence is taking a stand," says the school's communications director Todd Wilson. "A lot of people who are close to the college might ultimately view this as a point of pride." Then again, a lot of people may not even notice.