NCAA powerhouse USC beating UCLA in football wouldn't be much of an upset in recent years, but academically? That's another story. The Westwood school has far outranked USC in global university rankings. Earlier this summer the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) said UCLA was the 15th best university on the planet. Even U.S. News & World Report's inaugural "Best Global Universities" rankings in 2014 placed UCLA at No. 8.
But when the publication's venerable "Best Colleges" rankings for American institutions was released this morning, UCLA was down at No. 24 domestically and, lo and behold, USC edged it out by coming in 23rd place. Trojans have mad bragging rights this year.
And the win, even if it's perplexing to watchers of those global rankings lists, provides some much-needed drama to this crosstown academic rivalry. Last year, USC and UCLA tied at 23rd, and it made us yawn.
But why did UCLA do so well on a global level yet get beat by its bitter rival on the national academic playing field? A spokeswoman for U.S. News & World Report explained previously that the national rankings are based more on student education and outcome, while the global evaluations rely more on "academic research and reputation."
UCLA did make second place on the list of best public national universities. UC Berkeley took first place for the 19th year, U.S. News stated. UCLA tied for second with the University of Virginia. The University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina rounded out the top five, respectively.
The top school in the country overall was Princeton, followed by Harvard, the University of Chicago, Yale and Columbia, respectively.
Pasadena's Caltech, which last year was named the best university on the planet by Times Higher Education's World University Rankings, made 12th place on U.S. News' domestic list. UC Irvine came in 39th place on this national list. UC San Diego was 44th. Pepperdine was 50th.
USC, by the way, had a first-year student retention rate of 97 percent, compared with 96 percent for UCLA. U.S. News says its national rankings emphasize "student outcomes," graduation and retention rates, and evidence of "academic quality."
While students at private USC can rejoice, the publication notes in a statement that "California schools and military academies make a strong showing on the Top Public Schools lists."
ADDED at 2:38 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016: In a statement UCLA offered up an explanation. "The U.S. News methodology emphasizes factors that tend to favor private universities, such as endowment size, rate of alumni giving and student–faculty ratio," according to the school.
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Meanwhile University of California president Janet Napolitano expressed some Golden State pride.
"Once again, University of California campuses are named among the best public universities in the nation," she said. "That six of our campuses are in the top 10 reflects the commitment to excellence found among our students, faculty and staff system-wide. These rankings capture what we already know — UC students obtain a world-class education at a great value."