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The thrill is gone at Old Nassau. Nobody bothers to toss a mortarboard in the air when Princeton comes out on top of U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of the best undergraduate universities in the country. That’s an honor the university has either shared or won outright every year since 2000.
Why? Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and a handful of other schools draw from pretty much the same pool of brainiacs. In 2001 Princeton became the first school to replace student loans with need-based grants so that no one graduates with debt. That’s got to please Mom and Dad, who pay the bills.
But the best explanation lies in the balance Princeton strikes between its status as a world-renowned research university and its unwavering commitment to undergraduate teaching by its impressive faculty. That’s not the way professors think at many other top schools. Take Harvard, which has long been notorious for having a superb faculty that doesn’t really teach undergrads. “People at Harvard are concerned when they hear that some of our undergraduates can go through four years here and not know a faculty member well enough to get a letter of recommendation,” Theda Skocpol, the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, told the New York Times last spring.
The undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio at Harvard is 7 to 1—at Princeton, 5-to-1. Last spring, two of the university’s marquee professors, religion professor Cornel West and constitutional law professor Robert George, had the time of their lives teaching fifteen kids in a freshman seminar called “Great Books: Ideas and Arguments” that included works by Sophocles, Plato, Marx, and Augustine. “When I read [in the course listings] that it was Cornel West and Robert George, I was shocked,” says Robert Addis, a Princeton sophomore from Philadelphia. “A class like this is the reason I came to Princeton—two of the most distinguished faculty members not only doing research or teaching grad students, but teaching a freshman class.”