Harvard tops this year's U.S. News & World Report list of America's Best Colleges. It's the first time since 1996 that the Cambridge, Mass., university has held sole possession of the top slot. Princeton and Yale come in second and third, respectively, while Amherst College and Williams College share the No. 1 spot in the liberal arts category.
While Harvard is great, it is not for everyone, including some of those who are fortunate enough to get in. "Sometimes the pressure of a big-name school, or one that has a reputation, becomes more important than the needs of the child," says Kay Holleman, a guidance counselor at Gainesville High School, northeast of Atlanta. Holleman and other guidance counselors are the first stop most students applying to college will make to get a sense of which school might fit them best. "The counselor is their lifeline for what they need to do to get to college," Holleman says. So U.S. News surveyed high school guidance counselors for the first time to determine which colleges they believed offered the best education. The most notable result: Counselors put the U.S. Naval Academy in first place. That college ranks 22nd in the regular liberal arts category ranking. The U.S. Military Academy got a similar boost, jumping from 14th in the regular ranking to third with the counselors.
This year's rankings also include a list of Up and Coming Colleges—schools chosen by college administrators that are making innovative improvements in what they have to offer students, even if they haven't quite cracked the top of the normal ranking lists. Elon University in North Carolina came in first in that category. The school just added a foreign language requirement, and 73 percent of its students already study abroad. "We very much believe in the preparation of Elon students as global citizens," says its president, Leo Lambert.
For students who maybe didn't spend all their waking hours taking advanced placement courses, then studying through the night for standardized tests, there's A+ Schools for B Students. The schools that made this list perform well by the magazine's usual rating standards while also accepting significant numbers of students with less-than-stellar grade-point averages or standardized test scores. These schools can offer encouragement to high school students who might be overwhelmed by the college application process. "For a student with a B-plus average to hear that Harvard University is admitting 9 percent of its applicants, the response may be, 'How can I ever get into college?' " notes Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment and communications at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. But the average admission rate at U.S. colleges and universities stands at 70 percent, and the numbers for many schools speak for themselves: Allegheny—one of the magazine's "A+ Schools"— accepted about 57 percent of its applicants in 2007.