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A man walks in front of Nassau Hall on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, NJ, on March 12, 2015.
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At midnight on Wednesday, U.S. News & World Report released its 2016 Best Colleges list, the magazine’s annual survey that, for more than three decades, has been one of the most prominent if at times controversial metrics of academic excellence in American higher education.

The rankings, which assess nearly 1,800 colleges and universities on 16 criteria rarely see drastic change from year to year, and the latest iteration is no exception. For the third consecutive year, the top three spots on the list of national universities reliably went to Princeton, Harvard, and Yale Universities — the “Big Three,” in admissions industry slang — in that order. Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago all placed fourth, as they did last year.

Johns Hopkins University enjoyed the only significant climb within the holding pattern. After years of hovering in the low teens (then making its way to 12th last year), Hopkins has eked its way into the coveted top ten shortlist for the first time since 2000, pushing out Dartmouth College to tie with the California Institute of Technology.

Not every upward trajectory continued. The University of Notre Dame, which had jumped three spots since 2011 to tie with Brown University at 16th last year, fell back to 18th this time around.

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Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore Colleges respectively took the top three positions on the scoresheet of liberal arts colleges for at least the fifth year in a row. Immediately behind them, a four-way tie: Bowdoin, Middlebury, Pomona, and Wellesley Colleges all took fourth place.

“To find the best fit, students should consider a range of factors, from financial aid offerings and location to campus size and majors,” Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer at U.S. News, said in a statement that accompanied the rankings’ release. “The process can be overwhelming, but our rankings and advice content are a great place to start.”

The rankings have been the subject of controversy. Some argue that they are more a catalyst than a barometer. For college-bound teenagers, they say, the rankings perpetuate popular illusions of a college’s desirability (or lack thereof), which impacts a school’s acceptance rate, which in turn factors into a school’s U.S. News score — a hypothesis argued by a 2008 University of Michigan study that showed a”substantial improvement in admissions indicators” at those schools that appeared at the top of U.S. News’ list the previous autumn.

Some lament the idea that the importance of rankings could entice the colleges themselves to shift policy — or fabricate data altogether — to fill a rubric conducive to a higher score.

“Some schools or college presidents or boards have used wanting to improve in the rankings as an administrative goal. Some schools are targeting their academic policies toward improving in the rankings,” Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News, said to TIME in 2009.


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