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Rank and File


By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2010 8:10 AM

Who's No. 1? In sports, it's easy to tell — the team with the trophy. But in other aspects of life, it's more complicated. One person might put Leonardo da Vinci above all other artists. Another might rank Willem de Kooning highest. And it gets really complicated when the task is choosing a university that is best for a given student.

Many students and parents turn to the most popular ranking, U.S. News & World Report's "Best Colleges." But the magazine itself cautions that its evaluations should be used only as "one tool."


  Photo by Peden + Munk

In fact, there is no one campus that fits all, even if that campus is deemed by a ranking service to be the "best."

Though U.S. News is the Big Daddy, there are others that declare campuses the "best" in any number of areas. Washington Monthly's 2009 rankings, which measure social mobility, research and service, listed UCLA as third-highest. Sierra Magazine in 2009 listed UCLA ninth in its list of "Cool Schools" — a measure of "green" practices. In 2007, the Newsweek/Kaplan Guide named UCLA the "Hottest Mega-University."

But U.S. News rankings get by far the most attention; the magazine's publisher reported in 2007 that within 72 hours of its college rankings release, its website received 20 times as many hits as in a given month.

U.S. News measures acceptance rates, faculty salaries, graduation rates, etc. But many in academia, particularly among public universities, believe the criteria used greatly favor private colleges. Those criteria, they say, result in higher rankings for institutions that are nowhere near as good overall as UCLA or any number of University of California campuses.

In its latest report, U.S. News ranked UCLA as tied for second with the University of Virginia among the country's 164 national public universities. But its list of the top 26 public or private schools — a list that includes only three public universities — placed UCLA as tied for 24th with U.Va.

"Rankings are only as good as the criteria they use," says Judith L. Smith, UCLA dean and vice provost for undergraduate education. "They're interesting to read about, but you might want to know more about the specific educational opportunities at a university, or how many students there do research."

Some experts believe that U.S. News rankings reward institutions for wealth. Kevin Carey, writing in 2006 (PDF) for the think tank Education Sector, concluded that U.S. News rankings show that university scores are "almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth and exclusivity."

Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, UCLA vice chancellor for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division, prefers a graduate program assessment by the National Research Council. The assessment refrains from declaring the "best" program and instead uses a range to compile its lists. "That conveys something important, which is that programs can't be arranged hierarchically with that precision," Mitchell-Kernan says.

It is possible that composing "best of" lists is a particularly American thing to do. It is undeniably fun and potentially helpful — but the best idea is to view them critically.