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Video: What are the best colleges?

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    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: This morning on our special series BACK TO SCHOOL TODAY , the top college rankings . With the rising cost of higher education , many students and parents are wondering not only where to go to school , but if they can even afford it. U.S. News World Report is out with its annual college rankings , including some money-saving choices to consider. Kim Clark is the magazine's senior education writer. Kim , good morning to you.

    Ms. KIM CLARK (Senior Education Writer, U.S. News World Report): Thanks for having me.

    VIEIRA: This is the -- it's nice to have you here. This is the 27th annual list. Let's take a look at the top 10 here, and then tell me if there are any surprises on this list.

    Ms. CLARK: Sure. We're -- well, traditionally, Harvard , Princeton and Yale have sort of dominated...

    VIEIRA: They usually vie for that top one, yeah.

    Ms. CLARK: Right, dominated the top three. And this year, Harvard just eked out to be number one. But the differences between those three are so tiny, we're talking 1 or 2 percentage points on graduation rates and admissions rates that you shouldn't make a big deal about that.

    VIEIRA: Yeah, and you see a couple of schools tied for fifth place; three schools tied for ninth place.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: So you -- very minimal differences between them all.

    Ms. CLARK: That's right . Then there was Columbia , Stanford , Penn , and the two great tech universities, Cal Tech and MIT . And then there was a three-way

    tie for ninth: Dartmouth , Duke and the University of Chicago .

    VIEIRA: OK. The magazine's rankings this year also consists of two interesting smaller sub-categories, or lists. Great Schools, Great Prices" is one of them, and the other is "Up and Comers." Let's talk first about Great Schools , Great Prices . What's the criteria used to rank schools?

    Ms. CLARK: Right, so we made a score of all the indicators of quality. You know, alumni giving rates, graduation rates, admission rates, and we divided that by the net price that students actually pay. Not the sticker price you see on the Web site , but the price that students actually paid if they received need-based financial aid . And when we did that, it turns out Yale University came out on top, even though they have a sticker price of 53 or so thousand dollars, and that's because they're so generous with financial aid , that 53 -- 54 percent of students don't pay that big sticker price , they get financial aid and the average price paid by that 54 percent was about $14,000.

    VIEIRA: What an amazing difference that is, my gosh.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: One of the schools on the list is the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma , a school I was not familiar with.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: Why did that school make the list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, everybody's heard of private liberal arts colleges ...

    VIEIRA: Right.

    Ms. CLARK: ...which are expensive and they have small classes. This is one of a handful of public liberal arts colleges , so they have those same small classes but at a much lower price because it's a public university .

    VIEIRA: You mentioned Yale as well. Well, Harvard 's on the list for the sort of -- I suppose the same reason because there the initial price to go to Harvard is about $55,000.

    Ms. CLARK: Right.

    VIEIRA: That's the sticker price .

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Well, what most people don't realize is that schools like Harvard , Princeton and Yale are starting to charge on a sliding scale. So for example at Harvard , if you come from a family that earns less than $60,000, you're going to get basically a full ride, basically a full ride. If you come from a family that earns between 60,000 and $180,000, Harvard promises that they won't charge you more than 10 percent of your family's income. So you come from a family that earns $180,000, you get a Harvard education. That means room, board, books, tuition, travel for $18,000. That's a great value.

    VIEIRA: That is a great value. From Cambridge , Massachusetts , we're going to go off to Wisconsin to Ripon College .

    Ms. CLARK: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: Annual price for that college usually around $35,000. So why is it on the list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, Ripon is...

    VIEIRA: Same reasons?

    Ms. CLARK: ... Ripon is one of those schools that nobody's heard of, but it's a very nice school . It has very good graduation rate. But what you don't see on the Web site is that -- and the folks there have told me -- that 98 percent of students do not pay that $35,000 price . Only 2 percent of students do. The rest get financial aid . And the average price paid by the students who receive need-based financial aid is half that, about 18 or $19,000.

    VIEIRA: You know, there's this saying " you get what you pay for ." Is there any downside to this?

    Ms. CLARK: Yes.

    VIEIRA: Yeah.

    Ms. CLARK: Certainly college is just like everything else. Sometimes, but not always, you do get what you pay for, and some of these colleges are using low prices because they have some problems. The university in Oklahoma for example is a great school , but they are having some problems. I think about a third of their freshman don't return for sophomore years which indicates, you know, some problems. So they're trying to use financial aid to lure...

    VIEIRA: As an incentive for kids to come in.

    Ms. CLARK: ...better students. Right.

    VIEIRA: The next list is Up and Comers , and this includes some already well-known schools like USC is on, I think, Tulane , Pepperdine . What's the criteria to get on that list?

    Ms. CLARK: Well, what we did was we surveyed college presidents, provosts and college admissions officers and they what -- we asked them, "What are the schools that are making the most interesting improvements and should be watched" and that's this list.

    VIEIRA: OK. And one of the schools that you name is the University of Maryland Baltimore County . What are its selling points?

    Ms. CLARK: Well if you want to go to the traditional campus with ivy league -- ivy buildings and you want to bond with your roommate...

    VIEIRA: This is not it.

    Ms. CLARK: ...this is not that school ...

    VIEIRA: OK.

    Ms. CLARK: ...because it's a very new campus and they don't have a football team. But they have a president who's trying to make it cool to be smart. They have a championship chess team, and they have chess scholarships, and they have an excellent rate of getting kids into medical school and PhD programs.

    VIEIRA: OK. Across the country, you included a tech school in Northern California .

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is in a beautiful location. It's in wine country, it's right next to the Pacific Ocean .

    VIEIRA: I'm going.

    Ms. CLARK: Right, exactly. And it's a great school for anyone who's interested in tech and engineering. and actually it also has a good business program and it's not surprising because of its location, you can actually study winemaking there.

    VIEIRA: Which should be a lot of fun, yeah. And you do not need to be a technology major, in other words, to go there. That's not a mandate.

    Ms. CLARK: No, right, right.

    VIEIRA: And what's the graduation rate at that school ?

    Ms. CLARK: Right. Well, actually 70 percent of the students who enter as freshman do graduate within six years. Now that may seem low, but it's actually better than the national average.

    VIEIRA: All right, Kim Clark , thank you very much . A lot of -- the point is, there are a lot of great schools out there. People just need to take the time to research them.

    Ms. CLARK: Right. And one way to do that is to go, of course, to usnews.com and we have great statistics that you can look up and also the Department of Education has a wonderful free Web site called The Navigator .

    VIEIRA: We appreciate you time. Thank you very much .

Image: Harvard University campus
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images file
Students walk through the campus of Harvard University.
updated 8/17/2010 11:46:32 AM ET 2010-08-17T15:46:32

Harvard pulled ahead of Ivy League rival Princeton in the latest edition of the influential U.S. News & World Report university rankings, while a stronger emphasis on graduation rates drove other changes in the Top 10.

America's oldest university and traditionally one of its most selective, Harvard has topped the list two of the last three years. Last year, the two elite schools shared the top ranking.

Yale was the No. 3-ranked university this year, followed by Columbia, and Stanford and University of Pennsylvania tied at No. 5.

Williams College in Massachusetts was ranked the nation's top liberal arts school, repeating its feat of last year.

Influential rankings
The most closely watched of a growing number of college rankings, the U.S. News & World Report list is both credited for helping students and families sort through a dizzying college selection process and criticized by those who say it's too arbitrary and pressures colleges to boost scores at the expense of improving teaching.

A change in how rankings are determined led to some shifts in the magazine's "Best Colleges" rankings, which were released online Tuesday and examine more than 1,400 accredited four-year schools based on 16 factors.

How did Harvard edge Princeton by 1 point on an 100-point scale? Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, credited Harvard's higher scores on graduation rates, and financial and faculty resources.

More: Backlash building against college rankings

Tweaked methodology
The rankings take into account factors such as SAT scores, selectivity, graduation and retention rates, alumni giving and peer reputation. This year, high-school guidance counselors' opinions were added to the mix.

Most notably, graduation rate performance was given greater weight, accounting for 7.5 percent of the final score for national universities and liberal arts colleges, up from 5 percent last year. The variable is the difference between a school's actual graduation rate and one predicted by U.S. News based on test scores and schools' resources.

Morse said the shift helped Columbia University rise from eighth to fourth this year and contributed to Cal Tech and MIT falling from a tie for fourth to a tie for seventh.

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Nationally, graduation rates are getting more policy attention as higher-education leaders and advocates focus increasingly not just on getting students in the door but also out with a degree or certificate. One of the Obama administration's signature education goals is for the U.S. to regain the world lead in college graduation rates by 2020.

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UC system has strong showing
The University of California, Berkeley is the highest-ranked public university, at No. 22 overall in the U.S. News report. Despite a severe budget crisis, five schools in the UC system were among the top 10 public universities.

More schools were ranked this year, a reflection of both increased consumer demand and improved data collection, Morse said. The survey now displays the rank of the top 75 percent of schools in each category, up from 50 percent. The schools in the bottom tier are displayed alphabetically and not given numeric rankings.

The magazine also publishes a list of "Up and Comers," based on a survey of college administrators who were asked to nominate schools they think are making promising and innovative changes. The University of Maryland-Baltimore County was No. 1 among national universities in that category — and ranked No. 159 overall.

Earlier this month, Forbes magazine ranked Williams College No. 1 in its third "America's Best Colleges" rankings — and Harvard No. 8. The business magazine weighs student satisfaction, graduation rates, student debt and other factors.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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