Yale was ranked third in the U.S. News & World Report national college rankings for the fifth straight year, amidst a growing national controversy surrounding the publication’s methodology and quantitative focus.

The 2008 list of America’s Best Colleges places Yale behind Princeton and Harvard universities, which finished in first and second places respectively. Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania came in fourth and fifth. Among liberal arts colleges, which are ranked separately, Williams College finished first for the fifth consecutive year. The 2008 edition — which was released on August 17 — comes at a time when increasing numbers of colleges around the country are taking a stand against the rankings, claiming that the scores institutions receive do not accurately reflect the full scope of their undergraduate offerings.

Although Yale administrators have not expressed opinions about the rankings, Yale is hosting a conference on September 25 to encourage education leaders to discuss alternatives to the current system. Administrators said they hope the conference — sponsored by the Oregon-based anti-ranking nonprofit The Education Conservancy — will help college presidents and education researchers develop new tools for students and families to use in making decisions during the college application process.

Robert Morse, the director of data research for U.S. News & World Report, said there is very little, if any, statistical difference between Yale, Harvard, and Princeton’s scores on the 100-point scale. The discrepancies arise mainly in the categories of peer score, faculty resources, and graduation rate performance.

Morse, who is responsible for developing the methodologies and surveys for the Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools issues of the magazine, said he stands by the helpfulness of the rankings for students who find themselves bombarded with information during the application process.

“We believe we are providing valuable information to students and their parents, especially given the cost of education at some private schools like Yale, that is approaching $200,000,” he said in an e-mail.

In an effort to make the rankings more representative of the quality of life, Morse said there were two important changes to the ranking methodology this year. The magazine added the percentage of Pell Grant recipients on campus — low-income students who receive federal aid — as one of the factors used to assess the graduation rate performance. In addition, U.S. News did not rank schools that did not employ SAT or ACT standardized testing scores for admissions purposes.

Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said that while the rankings do provide applicants with some important information about schools, better alternatives are needed.

“Families want and need good information about college choices, and I believe that U.S. News fills a vacuum by reporting and circulating some useful data,” he said. “However, I also think the magazine’s rigid formula produces a highly artificial and unhelpful rank ordering, uses some data that is irrelevant to educational quality or fit and neglects much other useful data. Our hope in hosting the Beyond Rankings conference is to explore whether colleges could collaborate to provide more information and better information to students and counselors.”

In March, the presidents of 12 small private colleges composed a joint protest against the U.S. News rankings and asked the leaders of other institutions of higher education to follow suit. As of today, 63 college presidents have signed the letter, under the leadership of Lloyd Thacker, the founder of The Education Conservancy and the anti-ranking movement. These schools have vowed not to complete the peer review survey that asks them their opinions of other colleges, and in most cases they stopped sending U.S. News the statistical data that makes up their score. The majority of the schools also will not publicize their ranking in promotional materials.

None of the top 25 ranked institutions, whether overall or liberal arts, have supported the movement against the rankings at this point. Morse said if Yale were to join the protest and withhold information, the magazine would likely still be able to collect the necessary information to generate a ranking for the school.

Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis said that in spite of Harvard’s prestigious number-two position, the actual effect on people’s perception of schools at the top is minimal.

“I think the information provided in those rankings can be very helpful to families, but I don’t think there’s anyone anymore who puts stock in them,” she said. “It’s always flattering to be admired, but one would be crazy to take that seriously.”

Harvard has not taken a stand against the rankings, although McGrath-Lewis said that although the university believes more information is always preferable, the rankings may be misleading with respect to their conclusions about the order of the institutions.

Most students said that while the rankings show Yale in a very positive light, they were not a major factor in their application or matriculation decisions.

Nava Rafati ’11 said the components that make up an institution’s score were not the most important to her in choosing a college. The factors the magazine considered did not adequately portray what the quality of educational life would be, she said.

But other students said while the rankings may be negligible when comparing the top three schools, they do have a basis in reality and should not be completely discarded.

Genna Purcell ’10 said she believes it is difficult to compare Yale, Harvard and Princeton, and the fact that Yale is included among these prominent institutions is a reason to celebrate, rather than quibble over which school is ranked first. If Yale were to drop significantly, she said, prospective students and other observers would be likely to take notice.

“I think people would pay attention, and it probably would have affected my college choices because there must have been a reason for that,” Purcell said.

Some of the other factors that contribute to the U.S. News scores include graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, student to faculty ratio and acceptance rate. The U.S. News rankings have been published every August since 1983.