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The University of Washington has slipped a few places on the much-watched U.S. News & World Report college rankings, to 52nd place among 201 schools. But it remains in the top 20 for all public universities in the nation.

Most other colleges and universities in Washington ranked about the same as in last year’s report.

Washington State University ranked 128th, down from 125th last year. Western Washington University ranked second among public regional universities in the West — up by one from last year — and The Evergreen State College ranked fourth among regional universities, also up one from last year’s ranking.

The magazine’s college rankings are the most widely read in the country, serving as a kind of shorthand for placing a college’s quality on a continuum with that of other schools across the nation. But some critics say the rankings have contributed to a kind of arms race, rewarding colleges for spending more money and shutting out all but the most privileged students.

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One of the most vocal critics is Washington Monthly. That national magazine’s college rankings reward schools that enroll low-income students, help them graduate and offer a good deal for the price. In Washington Monthly’s list, which came out last month, the UW ranked 13th among all universities.

In the U.S. News list, the highest ranking ever reached by the UW was 41st — a spot it achieved in the magazine’s 2011 rankings, which were released in fall 2010.

The magazine’s editors tweak the formula a little each year, but the top five schools rarely change, just switching places on occasion. This year, in order of ranking, they are: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Stanford.

Between fall of 2010 and this year, some universities that ranked lower than the UW have now moved ahead on the list. Among those schools that ranked lower in the 2011 list, but rank above the UW today, are Pennsylvania State University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Florida, Boston University and Yeshiva University in New York.

In the measures used by the magazine’s editors, the UW has changed little since fall 2010. Its freshman-retention rate and graduation rates are very similar to 2010’s numbers, as are its alumni-giving rate and its acceptance rate.

UW officials said it appeared that U.S. News predicted a higher graduation rate for the university than it predicted the previous year, and that might have caused the ranking to fall, even though the graduation rate itself did not change

When the list is winnowed down to just public universities, the UW ranks 16th.

Among regional universities in the West, public and private, Western moved up from 27th on the list to 22nd. Regional universities are defined as schools that offer a full range of undergraduate majors and master’s programs, but few, if any, doctoral programs. They are divided by region and ranked by their peers.

Washington’s top-ranked regional is Gonzaga University, ranked fourth. Other rankings: Seattle University, 6; Whitworth University, Spokane, 9; Seattle Pacific University, 14; Pacific Lutheran University, 15; The Evergreen State College, 27.

Among national liberal-arts colleges, Whitman College in Walla Walla ranked 41st. The top school on that list was Williams College in Massachusetts.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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