New England Colleges Riding High in U.S. News Rankings—A Few Observations

8/20/07Follow @bbuderi

The U.S. News & World Report list of the best American colleges came out this weekend, with the print edition hitting newsstands this morning. This year, New England’s top schools are once again atop the list (not quite at the top, because Princeton holds the number one spot, a position it has held outright or shared for eight straight years). Yale, Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth…you know the names. But although the rankings are controversial and the lists contain few (if any) surprises, it’s always interesting to pore through the rankings to see if Harvard is holding Yale at bay or if MIT bests the nation’s great engineering schools—or where Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley, ranks.

Just in case you don’t feel like spending $9.95 for the print edition, $14.95 for the premium online edition, or $19.95 for the combo package (yes, U.S. News has gotten as good at milking, I mean marketing, itself as many of the colleges and universities it covers), I’m posting below the Top Ten rankings for three categories the magazine charts. These include: National Universities, Engineering Programs, and Liberal Arts Colleges. I’ve also broken out just the New England schools for the top 50 in each of those categories.

First, though, a few observations. It’s no surprise that the Boston area, especially, is rich in top universities. Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Tufts, and Brandeis are all in the top 35 nationwide. If you look at liberal arts colleges, though, the area blows away the rest of the nation. Massachusetts boasts three of the top five in this category—and six of the first 35. Oh yes, it also plays host to the country’s top-ranked engineering school: MIT.

This is a staggering achievement. As far as I can tell, the only place that rivals Massachusetts is California. The Golden State harbors nine of the first 50 schools in the national rankings, five of the top 35 engineering programs, and four of the best 35 liberal arts colleges. So we’re pretty even, except when you consider that California’s 2006 population was about 36.5 million, compared to 6.4 million in the Bay State.

What it all boils down to is that there’s probably nowhere in the country, and quite possibly the world, that offers a higher concentration of excellent higher education. So, here’s a question: Is the area underachieving or overachieving? I’ve heard countless times in recent months that the Boston area is losing its edge as a high-tech innovation machine, especially compared to the West Coast. But the Greater Boston region is only the 11th largest in the United States. Maybe it has done incredibly well to consistently rank in the country’s top two or three areas for innovation.

Or, given its educational underpinning, coupled to the scientific and engineering expertise in the region, not to mention outstanding venture capital, legal, and management expertise, is the area somehow falling short of its promise?

The general feeling among those I’ve talked to is that we could do better. About a month ago, Xconomy profiled Frank Moss, one of our editorial advisors and director of the MIT Media Lab. In his words:

“I view the Boston area just as basically underperforming relative to its assets. Yes, it performs well in some areas. But to whom much is given, much is expected. If you look at the assets we have available, we should be outstripping every other area in the world…The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, it’s less.”

One other thought related to the U.S. News rankings: when it came to Top Public Universities, the region did not fare so well. The University of Connecticut ranked 24th in the nation. The University of Massachusetts—Amherst was mired in a seven-way tie for 45th. That’s out of 67 schools on the list, putting it near the bottom. Of course, those were the only New England institutions to even make the list. There’s really an unacceptable inconsistency between public and private school performance, given the area’s assets.

Here are the rankings—

National Universities (New England schools in bold)

1. Princeton
2. Harvard (MA)
3. Yale (CT)
4. Stanford
T5-6. University of Pennsylvania
T5-6. Caltech
7. MIT (MA)
8. Duke
T9. Columbia
T9. University of Chicago

Other New England schools in the National University Top 50

11. Dartmouth (NH)
14. Brown (RI)
28. Tufts (MA)
31. Brandeis (MA)
35. Boston College (MA)

Top Engineering Programs

1. MIT (MA)
2. Stanford
3. U.C. Berkeley
4. Caltech
T5-6. Georgia Tech
T5-6. University of Illinois—Urbana-Champagne
T7-8. University of Michigan
T7-8. Cornell
T9-11. Carnegie Mellon
T9-11. Purdue
T9-11. University of Texas

Other New England schools in the Engineering Programs Top 50.

T33-36. Harvard (MA)
T37-42. Yale (CT)
T43-47. Brown (RI)
T48-51. Dartmouth (NH)

Top Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Williams (MA)
2. Amherst (MA)
3. Swathmore
4. Wellesley (MA)
T5-6. Carleton
T5-6. Middlebury (VT)
T7-8. Bowdoin (ME)
T7-8. Pomona
9. Davidson
10. Haverford

Other New England schools in the Liberal Arts Colleges Top 50.

T11-14. Wesleyan (CT)
T17-19. Smith (MA)
T22-23. Colby (ME)
T24-24. Bates (ME)
T27-28. Mount Holyoke (MA)
33. Holy Cross (MA)
T34-35. Trinity (CT)
T44-46. Connecticut College (CT)

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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