It's out. U.S. News and World Report posted its 2012 Best Colleges rankings on its website at 12:01 a.m.
The countdown clock had been ticking away, building anticipation of fate of the 1,600 colleges and universities that the magazine ranks by category: national universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities, and regional colleges.
The names of the top 25 national universities were unchanged from 2011, although the order changed a bit. Harvard and Princeton tied for first, followed by Yale third and Columbia fourth. New to the top 10 was the University of Chicago, which was tied for fifth, along with Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Pennsylvania. Duke University rounded out the list in 10th.
In the top 10 national liberal arts colleges, Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore Colleges led the list. Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., moved into ninth from 11th place, taking the place of Davidson College, near Charlotte, N.C.
The best regional college in the North was the United States Coast Guard Academy; in the South, John Brown University; Midwest, Taylor University; and for the West, Carroll College.
U.S. News ranked the top regional universities:
North:Villanova University, Fairfield University, and Loyola University Maryland
South: Rollins College, Elon University, and Stetson University
Midwest: Creighton University, Butler University, and Drake University
West: Trinity University, Santa Clara University, and Gonzaga University.
The magazine's list of top undergraduate teaching universities, based on a survey from earlier this year, starts with Dartmouth College, Princeton University, and Miami University of Ohio.
In this year's economy, the Best Value list may be of particular interest. This considers a school's academic quality and net cost of attendance for a student who receives the average level of need-based financial aid.
Also, the High School Counselor Rankings provide another perspective.
For the first time this year, U.S. News has included in the rankings all for-profit colleges and universities that grant bachelor's degrees, are regionally accredited, and were eligible to be ranked based on the publication's criteria. Many of these schools have large online bachelor's degree programs.
To compile the lists, U.S. News rankings chief Robert Morris explains its five-step process, which includes questionnaires, analysis, and cross checks.
Still, many are critical of the lists' influence and reliance on presidents' subjective peer evaluation, and blame it for fueling college marketing to draw in more applicants and boost selectivity rates. Some discourage students from putting too much stock in the listing, and others are urging schools not to participate in the survey.
Editors encourage students to use the ranking as a starting point for families comparing colleges, acknowledging that many other factors, including some that can't be measured, should figure in your decision, such as the school's cost, the availability of financial aid, course offerings, the feel of campus life, and the setting and geographic location.