Ari Jakobson, 21, a senior majoring in business, flexes his muscles as he… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
In the lengthy crosstown rivalry between Los Angeles' biggest universities, USC has just scored a narrow but unprecedented victory over UCLA. And it has nothing to do with sports.
For the first time since U.S. News & World Report began its annual rankings of colleges in 1983, USC has topped UCLA in the magazine's latest listing. USC tied with Carnegie Mellon for 23rd among national universities this year; UCLA stands one rung lower, tied for 25th with the University of Virginia and Wake Forest.
The news provoked a bit of crowing at the home of the Trojans south of downtown and muted congratulations, along with a measure of shock, from Bruins in Westwood.
At USC, students are spreading the news via happy Facebook postings and are ribbing their UCLA friends, said Tim Sae Koo, a junior who is active in student government. The news "did a lot for school pride," he said. "We definitely want to showcase that we beat UCLA on the rankings. It means a lot."
Jasmine Hill, UCLA's undergraduate student body president, said she thought state budget cuts may have hurt her campus' ranking but that most Bruins still consider their school the better one. "That rivalry with USC means so much for us. The fact that USC is above us in the ranking, that's huge."
The difference between USC's and UCLA's overall scores is a single point and may be attributed to changes in the criteria for this year's survey. But more significant than the two schools all but swapping places between last year and this one has been USC's continuing climb, according to Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News & World Report's college evaluations. Twenty years ago, USC ranked below 50th while UCLA generally has held steady in the mid-20s during that time.
"The issue is the slow, steady rise of USC. It has taken many, many steps to improve their institution and rise in their rankings. It's been like a marathon, not a sprint," Morse said.
Many observers point to the gains in the school's finances and academics under former president Steven B. Sample, who recently retired after 19 years in the job.
Many academics dismiss college rankings as unscientific and biased and complain that U.S. News in particular focuses too much on selective admissions, the size of endowments and the opinions of other university leaders. One change in the magazine's criteria this year, adding the opinions of high school counselors to the formula, probably helped USC, Morse and others said.
Katharine Harrington, USC's vice president of admissions and planning, said the campus was "proud and happy" about the university's upward trend. "It's not by accident," she said. "We've made very intentional decisions and investments in people and curriculum."
As for besting UCLA, Harrington was diplomatic. "It's never a bad thing," she said, but added that "Los Angeles and California are plenty big enough for a number of very fine universities."
At UCLA, Lawrence Lokman, associate vice chancellor for communications, sounded a similar note as he offered congratulations to USC. "Honestly, Los Angeles benefits from having two great world-class universities, one public and one private," he said. "The city wins."
Yet, Lokman also noted that UCLA stood much higher than USC in another recent ranking. The Westwood campus was third, after UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, in an annual Washington Monthly listing that stresses research, community service and aiding students' social mobility. USC placed 39th in that survey.
On U.S. News' list of national universities, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia grabbed the top four spots, with Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania sharing the fifth. Caltech and its cross-country rival MIT tied for the next spot. UC Berkeley, at 22nd, was the highest-ranking public institution.
The full listing online can be found at: http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges