College Rankings Explored and Explained: U.S. News & World Report

With almost 3,000 schools to choose from and opinions coming from every direction, the college selection process can be excruciating. Many students turn to rankings to help narrow down their choices, but these lists are only useful when they align with the prospective student's needs and values. To help demystify the world of rankings, presents an introductory guide to three popular systems: U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review and Newsweek.

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Measuring Quality

College rankings are often controversial. Many educators claim that they measure reputation more than academic quality, and discourage a more nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools. Furthermore, because a high rank can often lead to more tuition dollars, some schools have openly admitted to gaming the system to artificially improve their ranks.

Supporters of college rankings argue that they promote marketplace-style competition between schools, with the 'consumer' (students) reaping the benefit of institutions striving to improve.

Rankings also offer a very practical benefit: A reliable, third party measure of a school. Realistically, students can't pay a personal visit to every college and university they might consider attending. And even if they do, individuals don't have the time or resources to collect all that data.

As a result, even students who are skeptical of the ranking system can get something out of these tools by understanding what they're measuring and how they go about it.

us news and world report

U.S. News & World Report

The U.S. News & World Report rankings are perhaps the most well-known and widely used college rating system. In addition to the main college rankings (which look at undergraduate performance), the publication ranks business schools, law schools, engineering schools and other major graduate programs.

The core U.S. News rankings are broken down into two categories, national universities and national liberal arts colleges, based on the 2006 Carnegie college classifications. National universities offer undergraduate, master's and doctoral programs and place an emphasis on faculty research. National liberal arts colleges focus primarily on undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the arts and sciences. In some cases, U.S. News also ranks colleges by region.

After separating the institutions into classes, the evaluators gather data on 16 'indicators of academic excellence' that fall into seven ranking categories:

  • Undergraduate academic reputation
  • Student selectivity for the last entering class
  • Faculty resources for the last academic year
  • Graduation and retention rates
  • Financial resources
  • Alumni giving
  • Graduation rate performance

This data comes directly from the schools, but the evaluators at U.S. News take a number of steps to confirm information in an effort to ensure accuracy. They also always report missing data in the ranking tables.

Each indicator is assigned a weight based on how much the evaluators thinks it affects the quality of the school. The colleges are then assigned scores and ranked against their peers as national universities, national liberal arts colleges or regional colleges and universities.

In an effort to provide more fine-grained information, U.S. News has also started adding categories that address specific students interests. These include 'Great schools at great prices,' where tuition and debt is weighed against academic quality, 'Up-and-coming schools,' a list of schools showing rapid improvement, 'A+ schools for B students,' which ranks good schools that look beyond traditional transcript measures and 'Unranked specialty schools,' highlighting institutions like Juilliard that offer stellar education in an area so niche that the category is too small to rank.

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