September 1, 2000

Cornell Rises to Tenth in Rankings

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Cornell rose by one spot to tenth place in the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings, joining the coveted “top ten” in the list, which was released as high school seniors return to school and begin the college application process. The rankings were officially released early this morning.

The 2001 list named Princeton as the nation’s top school. Harvard and Yale tied for a close second, followed by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) — last year’s top school — and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Cornell shares the tenth position with Columbia and the University of Chicago.

The suspense was taken out of the posting this year for many colleges after the rankings accidentally went on sale a few days early.

A mix-up among magazine distributors led bookstores and supermarkets in Ohio, Vermont, and other states in the Northeast to put the rankings guidebook on their shelves before the Sept. 4 sell date.

The fact that such a spilled secret would produce such a spectacle underscores the impact of the rankings for many across the country.

“People say that the rankings are looney tunes, but enough people pay attention to them that they do make a difference,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics.

Ehrenberg, who has done research on the rankings’ impact, added, “Higher rankings tend to bring in more student applications, which in turn increases the selectivity of the particular university and enables [the University] to cut down on financial aid without having attendance suffer.”

Vice President of University Relations Henrik N. Dullea ’61 said, “Given all of the attention that the rankings [receive], I am pleased to see that Cornell is in the top ten.”

Still, there are many who have claimed the rankings are not all that they are cracked up to be.

In a report publicized last week by Washington Monthly, the National Opinion Research Center rapped the rankings as lacking “any defensible empirical or theoretical basis,” a criticism many college leaders have voiced for years.

In fact, U.S. News uses 16 measures to rank colleges and universities, such as graduation and retention rates, alumni donations, student-to-faculty ratios and per student spending.

The most influential measure, worth about 25 percent of the grade in the U.S. News formula, comes from a survey of college leaders who are asked to judge the academic reputation of American colleges.

Noting a somewhat arbitrary nature in the system, Dullea said, “One shouldn’t pay an enormous amount of attention to the particular ordinal rankings of the system.”

“The problem with the rankings is that they try to compare very different schools,” he added. “For instance, how does one compare a very specialized engineering school like CalTech with a liberal arts college like Dartmouth?”

Dullea suggested that the focus should be more on the relative positioning of the schools within the rankings over time.

Another common criticism is that the formulae for the rankings are constantly changing. Indeed, changes in the relative value of expenditures per student proved to be a key factor in this year’s rankings.

In essence, the system placed more emphasis on undergraduate education this year, thereby hurting schools with major research and graduate programs. This change could explain why Johns Hopkins fell from number seven to number 15.

Cornell’s balance between undergraduate education and graduate research may have evened out the effects of the new formula, boosting the University up a spot from last year’s 11th place ranking.

According to Ehrenberg, “Each of the individual factors in the formula makes sense, but the weighting is arbitrary.”

Ramona Pousti ’04, who just last year faced the college decision, said, “There are many factors that go into the quality of a school; each of these factors holds a different weight depending on the student involved.”

— The Associated Press contribtued to this story

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts