It’s not clear how much they mean beyond bragging — or taunting — rights, but the annual U.S. News ratings released Monday say the University of Miami is Florida’s top college, just nipping the University of Florida and clobbering all those various Seminoles, Bulls, Knights and the rest.
Miami was ranked in a six-way tie for the 44th-best college in the country, slightly ahead of No. 50 Florida among the 310 ranked colleges.
But the Gators can boast that U.S. News proclaimed their school the nation’s No. 14 public school, tied with Penn State, trailing several big public universities in California and the Midwest but two places ahead of the awash-in-oil-money University of Texas.
Other Florida schools making the national list included Florida State (tied for No. 92); University of South Florida, (tied for No. 159); Florida Institute of Technology (tied for No. 171); University of Central Florida (tied for No. 176); and Nova Southeastern (tied for No. 214).
None of the state’s colleges got anywhere near the top of the rankings, which were dominated by the usual gang of elite private schools: Princeton, Harvard, Chicago, Yale, Stanford and Columbia.
Ten Florida colleges made some of the subsidiary U.S. News lists, notably Florida A&M, rated No. 7 among 80 historically black universities.
The University of Florida was ahead of Miami in last year’s rankings (No. 47 to No. 51), but because U.S. News tweaks and tinkers with its criteria every year, it’s nearly impossible to figure out the significance of small advances or retreats in the ratings.
That didn’t stop people in Coral Gables and Gainesville from needling one another, or their mutual nemesis in Tallahassee, or even themselves. “We slipped three places, not that anybody’s counting, of course,” observed a sardonic University of Florida professor who prudently declined to be identified.
“Being No. 1 is always great, though when you’re talking about colleges in Florida, the grading curve is about as wide as the big bend in the Palmetto Expressway,” proclaimed film director Billy Corben, a sporadically loyal alumnus of the University of Miami. “And Florida State is No. 1 in covering up football players’ crimes, so at least they have that solace.”
University officials, many of whom have experienced both the glee at the top of the ratings and the gloom at the bottom, had a more measured response. Marshall Criser III, chancellor of Florida’s state university system, liked the overall scope of the rankings.
“Clearly, the support from the governor and legislature and the hard work by our universities is paying off,” Criser said. “Today’s rankings are an affirmation that Florida is headed in the right direction.”
University of Miami officials focused less on the No. 44 ranking than the school’s performance in an important niche ranking: average debt of a graduating student. At $19,000, Miami grads have the fifth-lowest debt burden among top private research universities.
“The University of Miami is very aware of the high cost of attendance at private institutions and the burdens imposed by high student debt,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc. “We are working hard to reduce the debt of our neediest students, and will continue to do so as our resources permit.”
The validity of the U.S. News ratings has been under fire practically since the day the first ones were published in 1983. The magazine considers a broad selection of factors into the ratings, from admissions-test scores to faculty salaries.
But many educators say the criteria are arbitrary and the entire process is an impossible apples-to-oranges comparison that pits tiny liberal arts colleges like Amherst with big state universities like Michigan. Michele Tolela Myers, then the president of Sarah Lawrence, famously declared in 2007 that the main purpose of the U.S. News ratings is sate “our appetite for shortcuts, sound bites and top 10 lists.”
A number of colleges now refuse to answer the surveys that U.S. News uses to create the ratings. Others, however, covet the burnished reputation of a high rating so much that they cheat, inflating admissions-test scores and other data. Confessed cheaters in recent years included George Washington University in Washington D.C., Emory University in Atlanta, and Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.