By Brian Burnsed, U.S.News & World Report

This year, Harvard University regained sole possession of the top spot in U.S.News & World Report's Best Colleges 2011 rankings of national universities. Last year, Harvard and Princeton University tied for first, but Princeton fell to second in the 2011 rankings of these large, research-oriented institutions. Williams College can once again boast that it's the nation's top-ranked national liberal arts college -- a category of schools that place a higher emphasis on undergraduate education -- as it ranked a spot ahead of fellow Massachusetts liberal arts school Amherst College for the second consecutive year.

[Scroll down to see the top 10 national universities for 2011.]

This marks the 27th year that U.S. News has published college rankings. Though the top-ranked schools garner much acclaim, the rankings aren't produced simply to benefit students who are considering attending institutions like Harvard and Williams. U.S. News uses its array of college data to provide insight to students of various academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. There is a list of the best schools for B students, rankings of historically black colleges and universities, as well as rankings of the most diverse national universities. And though the worst of the financial crisis seems to have passed, finding value in the increasingly expensive world of higher education is still one of the most important -- if not the most important -- factors in choosing a school. To meet that need, U.S. News has compiled best value lists for national universities and national liberal arts colleges, which rank schools based on the average cost of attending -- after need-based grants are taken into account -- relative to their academic ranking.

The National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges lists are just two of several sets of rankings that are a part of U.S. News's evaluation of Best Colleges. Regional colleges and universities, which tend to draw heavily from their local area, and tend to have sparse doctoral program offerings, are ranked separately. Villanova University, Rollins College, Creighton University, and Trinity University are the top-ranked Regional Universities -- schools that offer degrees up to the master's level and were ranked as "Master's Universities" in the past -- in the North, South, Midwest and West, respectively. The top-ranked Regional Colleges -- schools that offer bachelor's degrees and were classified as "Baccalaureate Colleges" in previous rankings -- are the United States Coast Guard Academy in the North, Ouachita Baptist University in the South, Taylor University in the Midwest, and the United States Air Force Academy in the West.

Though California's public educational system is plagued by financial unrest and budget cutbacks, two of the state's schools are ranked as the top public national universities. The University of California -- Berkeley, which is the 22nd ranked national university, is the top-ranked public school, followed by the University of California -- Los Angeles. Rounding out the top five publics: University of Virginia, University of Michigan -- Ann Arbor, and the University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill.

Though schools at the top of the rankings deserve praise for their sterling academic standards, they shouldn't receive all of the credit. U.S. News asked college administrators to name schools they believe to have made sharp improvements to their academics and campus facilities. Based on the results, U.S. News ranked the top "Up and Comers" across several categories. The University of Maryland -- Baltimore County was determined to be the fastest-improving national university and Hendrix College earned top billing for National Liberal Arts Colleges. The best up-and-coming Regional Universities are Wagner College in the North, Elon University in the South, Butler University in the Midwest and Abilene Christian University in the West.

Top 10 National Universities

1. Harvard University


2. Princeton University


3. Yale University


4. Columbia University


5. (tie) Stanford University


5. (tie) University of Pennsylvania


7. (tie) California Institute of Technology


7. (tie) Massachusetts Institute of Technology


9. (tie) Dartmouth College


9. (tie) Duke University


9. (tie) University of Chicago




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