PRINCETON, N.J. - At Princeton, pride in being ranked No. 1 comes in a rolling wave of orange.
There are blazers with orange stripes, orange stars and orange tigers as alumni march through campus at the annual Princeton reunion parade, or P-rade. There are baseball caps, bandanas and visors, bowling shirts, leis and boas, all orange — or at least shades of tangerine, peach and mango.
Pride is something Princeton alumni wear on their sleeves, quite literally.
"Being the No. 1 school and having attended it and/or graduated from it, you naturally retain that for the rest of your life," says Dixon Hills, a retired physician, Class of '54, wearing orange-and-black striped socks. "They bring us back once a year to dress in orange and black and pretend we're undergraduates again, and then we give lots more money at the annual giving."
As the 25th reunion class marches by in matching stripes, fellow alumni greet them with football game-style chants.
And even at age 102, Malcolm Wornock, retired lawyer and sole representative of the class of '25, donned his orange blazer to join the parade in a golf cart.
"What made me come back? Don't be funny," he says. "Everybody wants to come back to a reunion. That's what Princeton's made up of, people coming back to reunions."
This kind of enthusiasm has helped keep Princeton at the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings of top universities for eight years running.
Princeton may trail Harvard in selectivity and the California Institute of Technology in faculty resources, but it is tops in a key area the magazine uses to determine the best school: alumni giving. A whopping 60 percent of Princeton alumni make donations, blowing away No. 2 Harvard's 41 percent.
Alumni give because they are proud the school is ranked No. 1, and the school is ranked No. 1 because alumni give.
Still, while no one disputes that Princeton is one of the nation's finest universities, the rankings rankle many educators, both in the way they're calculated and the way they're used.
Publicly, Princeton and other highly ranked schools pooh-pooh the rankings, the latest of which will be published online on Friday in the magazine's annual "America's Best Colleges" guide. Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman declined to be interviewed for this story because the school does not comment on rankings.
"We are pleased that our commitment to providing the highest quality undergraduate education continues to be recognized," said Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt. "Still, we feel it's important to note that no formulaic ranking can capture an institution's individual distinctiveness."
But there's no denying that universities benefit from sitting atop the list.
A high ranking generates more applicants to the school, allowing it to be more selective. It bolsters the school's reputation, another factor in the U.S. News list.
"There's a halo effect," says Richard Richardson, a professor of higher education at New York University. "That is, once you are identified as No. 1, people tend to associate you at that level."
And it generates more alumni giving, a key asset for Princeton. Giving is just one part of the U.S. News formula — Princeton also scores well on small class size and selectivity. But it's a measure where Princeton stands out.
"From the time you enter Princeton until you die, they never let you go," says Herb Hobler, Class of '44, attending his 62nd reunion in a row.
Princeton wasn't always in the catbird seat. It started off "pretty unprepossessing" as the College of New Jersey before Woodrow Wilson transformed it into a powerhouse as its president in 1902, says James L. Axtell, a history professor at the College of William and Mary and author of "The Making of Princeton University."
In the early part of the 20th century, Harvard, Yale and Princeton became known as "the big three," mostly for their football programs. Since the U.S. News rankings debuted in 1983, those three have remained in the top tier, says the magazine's editor, Brian Kelly, adding, "It's pretty hard to think that Princeton, Harvard and Yale aren't always going to be among the top schools, given the students they attract and the resources they have."
That's one reason the rankings have been faulted: They measure resources and reputation but have only roundabout measures for gauging learning.
Education activist Lloyd Thacker complains that rankings by U.S. News and its competitors contribute to what's wrong in education today. To Thacker, rankings add to the stress and pressure kids are under, and make them more concerned about grades and SAT scores than learning.
"This process makes kids sneaky, game-playing conformists," he says. "The high-end kids are over-processed, over-packaged, disengaged with learning. The poor kids, the disadvantaged kids, see this process as so complex and so convoluted and so costly that they're not even engaging in it."
At the same time, colleges are polishing up their dorms to attract students instead of focusing on their core mission of education, says Stanley N. Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.
"What it does to the behavior of institutions is simply appalling," Katz says. "They're behaving badly."
While he has high praise for Princeton in general, he says it too has gotten caught up in the "arms race" for better rankings. It has renovated every dorm on campus, built a new residential college for more than $150 million and improved athletic facilities.
"If you get 25 brochures, and they seem to be more interested in telling you about the swimming pool than the philosophy courses, maybe they're sending you a message about what they think is important," he says.
A project called "Beyond Rankings" that Thacker and his Education Conservancy are working on would create a Web site compiling college data without ranking it and help guide students to colleges that match their interests and priorities.
Kelly defends his U.S. News rankings, saying they are one aspect of the magazine's array of tools, forums and advice for students, and expose students to all kinds of schools they wouldn't hear about otherwise.
"We get blamed for a lot of things that aren't really our fault," Kelly says. "Schools do what they think is the best for them. Recruiting better students and paying professors more — I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Creating two salad bars in the cafeteria doesn't go into the rankings."
Plus, there's good reason for U.S. News to consider a university's finances in its rankings: Money isn't everything, but it sure doesn't hurt.
"The more money your alumni give, the larger your endowment. The larger your endowment, the more money you have to spend if you want to buy a new economics department," NYU's Richardson says.
Princeton's endowment is $15.8 billion, among the very largest.
Alumni giving is considered a way to judge the satisfaction of graduates. Kelly acknowledges that it might also reflect a school's fundraising ability or the wealth of its alumni, but adds, "there's some reality underlying those numbers."
At Princeton, the money is also being used to eliminate student loans for all undergraduates. The class of 2008 is its fourth to graduate debt-free, something the university believes will free them to choose lower-paying careers, such as teaching or charity work.
Back at the reunion P-rade, another "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" cheer goes up as the Class of '63, the most generous in Princeton's history with 80 percent giving money, passes by. They wear Elvis costumes and wave signs saying, "The king still gives."
This spirit and generosity will undoubtedly pay dividends for today's students, whether or not Princeton continues to reign as No. 1.
"Nothing disparaging about your school," says Fred Billings, Class of '68, "but this is the best."