Duke has long prided itself on having both a top-notch social life and elite academics that rival its Ivy League counterparts.
Historically considered the best U.S. academic institutions, the eight Ivy League schools, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also represent Duke's closest undergraduate competition.
But are Duke's undergraduates as good as Harvard students and the rest of the Ivy League-ers? Yes and no, according to academic indicators such as SAT scores, popular college rankings, numbers of National Merit Scholars and graduate placement.
According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Chronicle research, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale effectively comprise the "best of the best" in U.S. academics, and Duke lags behind in almost every category.
Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, said data indicates that for the classes of 2008 and 2009, about 85 percent of students accepted to Duke and one of the five institutions that fall in the first group of competing schools--a group for which Guttentag uses the acronym "H-Y-P-S-M"--did not choose Duke.
"The numbers vary from year to year but stay in fairly defined ranges," Guttentag wrote in an e-mail.
Yet by many measures, Duke ranks on par with the rest of the Ivy League-in particular, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth and Penn.
During the last two years, Guttentag said data indicates that between 40 and 60 percent of students accepted to Duke and one of the second group of competing schools chose Duke.
Duke enrolls between 75 and 90 percent of cross-admitted students from the third group of top competitors, which includes Cornell, Northwestern and Georgetown.
From data collected by U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings of the top colleges, Duke's 25th- to 75th-percentile SAT scores range from 1360 to 1540, a figure that places the University in the middle of what many view as its top 11 competitors. The data was collected for the class of 2009.
Though among the highest in the nation, Duke's average SAT scores are still behind the top H-Y-P-S-M schools.
But Guttentag said he does not heavily emphasize average SAT scores.
"I'm not sure these are significant differences [in SAT scores]," Guttentag said. He pointed out that scores are dependent on many variables, citing the percentage of students in different academic disciplines and the percentage of international students as examples. "I'd say these data are another indicator that Duke students as a whole are academically roughly comparable to students at these other schools," he said.
Duke also attracts the sixth-most National Merit Scholars on the list of top competitors, based on the 2005 scholarship competition results released by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. In 2005, Duke enrolled 117 National Merit Scholars, again behind the top five but ahead of all other schools.
When asked if Duke monopolizes National Merit Scholars in the South or Southeast, Guttentag replied that "there are advantages to being perceived as perhaps the most... prestigious university in a region... the way Stanford is on the West Coast. The ability to attract outstanding students from that region is one of them."
U.S. News, which ranks American universities and focuses on factors such as student selectivity, faculty resources and peer assessment, placed Duke eighth this year, ahead of Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth but again behind the top five.
The Times Higher Education Supplement is an international ranking published from London. It placed Duke at 11th in the world in 2005-once again, behind Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT, among private U.S. universities.
The THES Rankings focus on academic reviews, surveys of global corporate recruiters and faculty resources.
The Wall Street Journal feeder ranking also puts Duke behind Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. The Wall Street Journal surveyed what it considered to be the five top medical schools, law schools and business schools and recorded the undergraduate school of enrolling students.
Duke is ranked sixth overall, putting it ahead of Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Penn and MIT in terms of sending undergraduates to the 15 professional schools on the survey.
Duke ranks higher than five Ivy League schools, even though nine of the 15 survey schools are Ivy League graduate programs.
Rankings and statistics all point to a similar trend: Duke consistently ranks as one of the top schools in the nation in terms of academics, but still lags behind the perennial scholarly powerhouses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT.
Even so, every year some students, such as junior Megan Braley, opt to turn down top-five schools for Duke.
As a high school senior, Braley wasn't certain what she wanted to study, but "applied [to schools] that had high-quality programs in many disciplines."
At the end of the college application process, she was admitted to many elite schools and narrowed her list down to Duke, the University of Virginia and Princeton.
In an online correspondence, Braley said Princeton was attractive because of its prestige and the potential post-graduation benefits, such as alumni connections and higher rates of admission to graduate school.
"I was afraid I would regret passing up the opportunity to go to such a highly regarded university," Braley said.
This year, Princeton was ranked first overall in the U.S. News rankings and surpassed Duke in most academic categories.
However, Braley said she still felt Duke was a better choice for her.
"At Duke... I instantly met far more people who I could picture being my friends," Braley said, though she admits she might not have gotten the full picture of life at Princeton during her visits.
She said she feels Duke is not far behind Princeton. "The academic and career opportunities offered at Duke could certainly compare to those at Princeton," she said.
Sophomore Christine Smith found herself deciding between Duke, MIT and Penn.
Though MIT is statistically stronger than Duke, Smith chose to attend Duke.
"The people at MIT seemed much more concerned with life after college than actually enjoying their time in college," Smith said. "Duke students can have fun, but they also know when it's time to work."
Both Braley and Smith represent a minority of students. Though many top students aim for one of the H-Y-P-S-M schools. they do not have the luxury of choosing between those schools and Duke.
For example, sophomore Moses Lee chose to attend Duke over Columbia and Cornell.
"The academics at Duke and Columbia seemed pretty even to me," Lee said. "But I chose Duke because it fit me better-Duke's campus was much nicer, the academics were more flexible. It just seemed easier to have a good time at Duke."
But Duke was not Lee's first choice.
Lee, interested in top engineering programs, applied to Stanford and said he "would have probably gone [to Stanford]" if he had been taken off the waitlist.
Still, Lee said he has few regrets about being at Duke. "I knew Duke was the place for me," he said.
Though many students accepted to other schools do not choose to attend Duke, Guttentag said he feels the University continues to attract the right type of student.
"Duke is a special place," said Guttentag. "There are many students who find it just the right match for them."
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