Where Are America’s Most Popular Colleges?

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Memorial Church at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

For the first time since 2009, Harvard University has toppled Brigham Young University as the nation’s most popular school. Each year, U.S. News and World Report puts out rankings of the most popular national university in America among applicants, which they determine by looking at the percentage of students accepted to a school who opt to attend. In short, if you apply to Harvard and get into Harvard, you go to Harvard. It’s a completely made-up maxim that held true for at least the 75.5% of students who were accepted as part of the fall 2010 class and ultimately chose to enroll, giving Harvard the title of Most Popular. Harvard is also the top-ranked institution in U.S. News‘s Best Colleges rankings,

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Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah placed second with a 74.7% yield—just 0.8 percentage points lower than Harvard. It’s not surprising that other Ivy League-caliber schools like Stanford, Yale and University of Pennsylvania are all in the top ten of most popular schools. But University of Alaska – Fairbanks? Didn’t see that one coming, unless you consider that Alaska has very few universities and if local kids want to stay close to home, it is one of the few options. Similar reasoning explains University of Nebraska – Lincoln and, perhaps, Georgia Southern University. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) narrowly beat University of North Dakota to round out the top ten most popular schools.

If you switch over to the table ranking the most popular liberal arts colleges in the nation, the listings get even more interesting. U.S. News and World Reports defines “liberal arts colleges” as “schools that place an emphasis on undergraduate education and award at least 50% of their degrees in the liberal arts.” Far from the granola-fueled undergrads in pajamas you may picture at the thought of “liberal arts,” the top three spots go to the US Naval Academy, the US Military Academy and the US Air Force Academy. Savannah State University and Berea College (which is located just south of Lexington in Kentucky) round out the top five.

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One thing doesn’t quite ring true about these rankings, though. Whether or not a student accepts a seat at a school is not merely a question of a school’s popularity. There’s parental pressure to attend a much-loved alma mater or acceptance at a school that is too good to turn down, or even the fact that many graduating seniors and their families can’t afford to attend their top-pick college. Additionally, many students pad their application pool with an assortment of so-called safety schools, which they will happily attend if they are turned down at their top choices. Are those schools more popular? Not really.