Thursday, September 28, 2006

USC closing in on UCLA

From: Los Angeles Daily News

For decades, UCLA students have derided crosstown rival USC as the "University of Spoiled Children" and the "University of Second Choice."

But each of the past few years has drawn a smarter and more accomplished freshman class to the University of Southern California.

Just 10 years ago, USC was 12 spots behind UCLA on U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of national universities - the bible for most college-bound high schoolers. Five years ago, USC narrowed the lead to eight spots and last year to five.

Now, it trails UCLA by just one.

With school starting at the Westwood campus today,Bruins can no longer thumb their noses at the "rich kids" attending the pricey, private school in South Los Angeles who didn't have the academic mettle to gain entrance to UCLA.

Trojans have already surpassed Bruins on one of the most critical academic assessment tools - the SAT - and are on the precipice of dethroning UCLA as L.A.'s highest-ranked university.

"There might be some soul searching," said Jeff Schenck, editor in chief of UCLA's student newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

Fellow student Edgar Campos, a double major in history and Chicano studies, worried that USC's ranking surge could devalue a UCLA degree.

"It weighs down the value," he said. "My paper (would be) worth less than theirs."

University of California, Los Angeles, officials downplayed the impact of USC's rise in the rankings, saying closer academic competition is good for both schools.

"A metropolitan world-class city like Los Angeles deserves two outstanding universities, one private and one public, to engage each other and egg on each other to greater heights," said Vivek Shetty, chairman of the UCLA Academic Senate. "Ultimately, they benefit and society benefits."

Drawing more applicants last spring than any school in the country, UCLA is not at a loss for bright freshmen. The issue is about bragging rights. The problem for Bruins is not that UCLA has fallen from grace, but that USC has risen so fast. The survey ranks schools on 20 categories, including the caliber of applicants, alumni donations and faculty resources.

In 1996, USC was ranked 43 and UCLA 31. USC climbed to 34 and UCLA to 26 in 2002. Last year, they were ranked 30 and 25, respectively.

When U.S. News' 2007 rankings hit newsstands last month, UCLA clung to 26 and USC rose to 27. If the trend continues, USC could pass UCLA as soon as next year.

"You talk about other major, major schools, and UCLA wants to be right up there as a prestigious university," said Larry Davis, a Northridge lawyer who sits on the board of the UCLA Alumni Association. "And to have SC sneak up there from behind, that is not the greatest news."

USC administrators credit President Steven B. Sample, who took the helm in 1991 and led a $100million faculty hiring campaign. Since 2000, USC has increased its tenured and tenure-tract faculty from 409 to 494. There are 10 students for every USC faculty member, compared with 18 for every faculty member at UCLA.

"USC is a very nimble, entrepreneurial institution," said Peter Starr, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "I think we are seeing the benefits of that."

At the same time, USC has made huge strides. In 1996, only 12,778 high school seniors applied, forcing USC to admit 72percent. This spring, the admissions office received 33,979 applications and admitted 25percent - the same admissions ratio as UCLA.

During that time, average SAT scores of admitted USC students have climbed about 150 points, to 1,374 this spring (adjusted for the new test). The same average SAT at UCLA was 1,339.

"You hear about their GPA, and you hear about their SAT ...," USC Undergraduate Student Government President Sam Gordon said. "I don't know if I could get into the school myself now."

Interestingly, the increased caliber of applicants coincides with USC's rise to the top in college football. The Trojans shared the national championship in 2003, won it outright in 2004 and in January came within 26 seconds of beating Texas at the Rose Bowl for their third-straight title.

This put USC back in the national consciousness, and helped increase student applications, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"The reason institutions support athletics, the cynics tend to home in on money, but in fact it is also a matter of visibility and the creation of attachment," Nassirian said. "I mean, how many applicants to Notre Dame got to know Notre Dame because of its phenomenal athletic tradition?"

Getting course books in UCLA's Ackerman Student Union, communication studies senior Andrew Green, however, said he is more concerned with UCLA keeping pace with other top-ranked public schools - UC Berkeley, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

"Among private schools, USC is definitely second tier," Green said. "For that kind of money, you want to be going to something top 10, top 15."

Indeed, the U.S. News and World ranking favors private universities, which tend to have higher rates of alumni donors and smaller classes. The top 20 schools are all private - from Princeton to Notre Dame. Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia and UCLA fill four of the next six spots.

Believing that the rankings accounted more for a campus's reputation than the education it provided, Washington Monthly created its own annual rankings guide two years ago that focuses on social mobility, research and service. This year, the magazine ranked UCLA No.4 among national universities.

"In social mobility, UCLA really trounces USC," said T.A. Frank, a contributing editor to the monthly.

UCLA also was named a "New Ivy" in the 2007 Kaplan/Newsweek college guide. Two professors made Popular Science's "Brilliant Ten" list, and five faculty members have Nobel Prizes. The Westwood campus is second in the nation in total research expenditures only to Johns Hopkins University.

"Students react to what is cool and uncool," UCLA's Shetty said. "But that changes every year. We are a constant."