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Harvard Tops Gallup Poll List as Best University

Beyond Harvard, however, no consensus on top schools


PRINCETON, NJ -- Harvard is chosen by more Americans than any other school as the best university in the country. Over three-quarters of the American public name a college when they are asked to identify the best university in the United States, but the responses are widely divided between dozens of different schools, with only Harvard getting more than 5% of the total mentions. Perceptions about the top colleges vary significantly by region of the country.

Views of Public Differ From Results of Statistical Formula Used byU.S. News and World Report
The views of the average citizen can be contrasted with the annual Best College rankings just released byU.S. News and World Report. TheU.S. Newsrankings are based on a complex statistical formula, including such factors as academic reputation, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate, and alumni giving rate. The academic reputation component of theU.S. Newsformula is based on the perceptions of the academic elite: college presidents, deans of admissions and provosts.

The August 3-4 Gallup poll, by contrast, was much simpler. It asked a random sample of all Americans to name -- off the top of their head -- the best university in the United States. The responses give a good sense of the degree to which a group of elite universities dominate the perceptions of Americans.

The poll makes it clear that there is one school that stands out above all others using this top-of-mind questioning technique: Harvard. The Cambridge, Massachusetts university is mentioned by about one out of six Americans -- 16% -- as the best university, and as such dwarfs all other colleges. Stanford was the second in the list of colleges mentioned by Americans, but with only 4% of all mentions, followed by MIT and Princeton, with 3% each. Five other schools were nominated by 2% of Americans: Yale, Notre Dame, Duke, UCLA, and Penn State, while all others received only 1% of mentions or fewer.

The biggest contrast between the perceptions of the public and theU.S. Newslist is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which this year comes in number one on theU.S. Newslist. Less than 1% of Americans in the Gallup poll mention the Pasadena, California college, suggesting that its excellence and academic reputation have not been translated to the American population at large. The rest of the top five on theU.S. Newslist -- Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale -- all get at least 2% of all mentions on the Gallup poll list.

Perceptions of Top Schools Vary Widely by Region
Where Americans live appears to have a significant bearing on the colleges they consider to be the best in the country. Harvard wins in all four major regions, but the incidence of other schools varies widely:

  • In the East, Penn State comes in second behind Harvard, with 9% of Easterners' votes (Harvard gets 17% in the East). Penn State, by way of contrast, is tied for 40th place on theU.S. Newslist.
  • In the Midwest, Notre Dame, with 5%, and Michigan, with 3%, join Harvard (16%) and MIT (3%). (Notre Dame is 19th on theU.S. Newslist, and Michigan is tied for 25th).
  • In the West, Harvard squeaks past Stanford by a 12% to 11% margin, with UCLA and U Cal Berkeley also appearing on the list. Stanford is sixth on theU.S. Newslist, Berkeley is tied for 20th and UCLA is tied for 25th.
  • In the South, the top two schools behind Harvard (with 17% of Southerners' votes) are Texas A&M (which is not on theU.S. Newstop 50 list at all) and Duke, which comes in tied for seventh on theU.S. Newslist.
College graduates, who theoretically should know the strengths and weaknesses of colleges best of all, have roughly the same perceptions as the sample of all Americans. Harvard is number one among college graduates, with 22% of all mentions, followed by Stanford with 7%, MIT with 6%, Princeton with 4%, and Notre Dame with 3%.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of 1,048 adults, 18 years and older, conducted August 3-4, 1999. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

What university do you recognize as the best in the United States--all things taken into consideration?

Harvard 16%
Stanford 4
Princeton 3
Yale 2
Notre Dame 2
Duke 2
Univ. of CA/Los Angeles 2
Penn State 2
Texas A&M 1
Univ. of CA/Berkeley 1
Univ. of Michigan 1
Cornell 1
Brown 1
Florida State 1
Ohio State 1
Other 33
No opinion 24

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