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Harvard, Princeton Rule College Rankings

Perennial contenders Harvard and Princeton share the top spot in the latest edition of the influential U.S. News & World Report university rankings. Williams heads the list of liberal arts colleges while Dartmouth wins a new category ranking commitment to undergraduate teaching.

The latest edition of the contentious but closely followed "America's Best Colleges" appears online and in print Thursday.

Last year, Princeton had surrendered the top spot to Harvard after eight straight years at least tied for No. 1. This year the Ivy League rivals are followed by No. 3 Yale and a four-way tie for No. 4: Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

The ranking formula takes account of factors such as SAT scores, peer reputation, selectivity and alumni giving.

As usual, there are few major moves up or down among colleges this year, but the rankings remain a hot topic of debate among educators. While few openly embrace the idea of numerically ranking colleges, some call the rankings a helpful consumer tool. But many others consider the practice harmful for both students and colleges.

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Critics argue rankings pressure colleges to focus on boosting their scores in various categories, instead of improving their teaching. That debate was reignited earlier this year when a former Clemson University administrator described the school's coordinated efforts to move up the list.

There are also charges of gaming the system. Clemson's president acknowledged he ranked his own school higher than any other university when he responded to the magazine's peer review questionnaire - a survey that accounts for 25 percent of a school's score. Some critics assume such cheerleading is widespread; the magazine keeps the surveys themselves confidential but says it has safeguards against "strategic voting."

It didn't help much: Clemson ranks No. 61 among national universities - the same as last year.

U.S. News is the most closely watched ranking of undergraduate programs, but it has a growing number of imitators - with very different ideas about what makes a top college.

Rankings recently published by, for instance, had the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ranked first, followed by Princeton and Cal Tech.