best college rankings

In the Ranks Vi­su­al­iz­ing the U.S. News & World Report's 'Best Colleges' Rankings

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Visualizing the U.S. News & World Report's 'Best Colleges' Rankings

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Visualizing the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings

U.S. News & World Report’s (USNWR) Best Colleges Rankings are the most influential college rankings in the world, as well as the most controversial. In addition to providing trusted guidance to many of the best and brightest students around the globe, they are known to determine policy decisions of some colleges and universities looking to improve their rank. See where the rankings come from and how they work so you can decided their value for yourself.

U.S. News & World Report

Established in 1948, U.S. News & World Report began as a U.S. news magazine focused on politics, economics, health and education. Its major competitors were Time and Newsweek.

Originally a weekly publication, it became bi-weekly, then monthly, and as of 2011, online-only.It is now known almost exclusively for its rankings (colleges, high schools, hospitals, automobiles, health plans, mutual funds, nursing homes, law firms and more).

The Best Colleges Rankings

Called “the granddaddy of college rankings,” U.S. News & World Report first published rankings of American colleges in 1983. Its Best Colleges Rankings are now the most widely recognized and influential college ranking in the world. The Best Colleges Ranking web page receives over 2 million hits per week. A study published by Harvard Business School showed that a one-rank improvement increases applications to a college by one percent.

Robert Morse is the director of data research for U.S. News & World Report and the one responsible for developing the methodologies and surveys for rankings. Morse has an MBA from Michigan State University and worked for E.F. Hutton and the U.S. Treasury Department before his involvement with the rankings in 1987. He runs the blog Morse Code, which provides updates and commentary on the U.S. News & World Report Rankings and frequently responds to criticisms of the rankings.

How the Rankings Work

The main ranking sort schools into four different categories based on the school’s mission as classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Basic Classification: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges. Rankings for each category have slightly different methodologies.

Data is gathered from each school on up to 16 different indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is weighted differently based on the editors’ judgments regarding the relative importance of each one. The schools in each category are ranked according to their weighted composite scores.

The sixteen indicators measured are grouped under seven major categories:

  1. Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges; 25 percent for Regional Colleges and Regional Universities)
    • This is based on surveys of college and university presidents, provosts, and deans, as well as high school guidance counselors
    • Rationale: Not everything about a school can be captured by quantitative data and deans, presidents, provosts and counselors have a privileged background and vantage point from which to assess the quality of schools. Also, the reputation of a school can be important for landing a job or getting into graduate school.
  2. Retention (20 percent for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges and 25 percent for Regional Universities and Regional Colleges)
    • This is a combined measure of the percentage of student who return to the school after their freshman year and the proportion of a graduating class who earned a degree in six years or less.
    • Rationale: The higher the proportion of freshmen who return to campus for sophomore year and eventually graduate, the better a school is apt to be at offering the classes and services that students need to succeed.
  3. Faculty Resources (20 percent)
    • This is a composite score made up of six different factors: 1.) proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30 %); 2.) proportion of classes with 50 or more students (10%); 3.) faculty salary (35%); 4.) proportion of professors with highest degree in their field (15%); 5.) student-faculty ratio (5%); proportion of full-time faculty (5%)
    • Rationale: Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely it is they will graduate.
  4. Student Selectivity (15 percent)
    • This is a composite score made up of: 1.) SAT and ACT scores (50%); 2.)proportion of enrolled freshman who graduated near the top of their class (40%); 3.) percentage of applicants accepted by the school (10%).
    • Rationale: A school’s academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the students.
  5. Financial Resources (10 percent)
    • Only looks at average spending per student on instruction, research, and student services, and other educational expenditures; spending on sports, dorms, and hospitals is not counted.
    • Rationale: The more a school spends per student, the more programs and services it can offer.
  6. Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent; for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges only)
    • This indicator of added value shows the effect of the college’s programs and policies on the graduation rate of students after controlling for spending and student characteristics such as test scores and the proportion receiving Pell grants. Measures the difference between a school’s six-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2005 and the predicted rate for the class.
    • Rationale: If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement.
  7. Alumni giving rate (5 percent)
    • The percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave in recent years.
    • Rationale: Alumni giving is thought to be an indirect measure of student satisfaction, since the more you enjoyed your time at the school, the more likely you are to give.

Each school’s ranking is determined by the weighted sum of all its scores for each factor. The top school in each category is scaled up to 100 and then the scores of all the other schools in the category are calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores are rounded to the nearest whole number and then ranked in descending order. Tied schools are listed in alphabetical order.

Pros and Cons

The most commonly cited positive qualities of the USNWR rankings:

  • Uses transparent criteria and methodology
  • Relies primarily on quantitative, objective data rather than subjective opinions
  • Uses most recent data provided by the schools themselves
  • Shows scale-adjusted scores for each school so users can see the degree of difference between each ranked school
  • Provides lots of useful information about each ranked school displayed in an easily understandable manner

The most common criticisms of the USNWR rankings:

  • Doesn’t sufficiently take into account significant differences between types of colleges and their particular missions and thus ends up comparing apples to oranges
  • The assumptions behind the criteria used and the weightings given to them are subjective
  • Gives the most weight to personal opinions regarding a school’s reputation
  • Doesn’t measure the quality or amount of learning that occurs
  • Doesn’t take into account outcome measures showing how students succeed after graduation
  • Doesn’t consider overall cost of attendance in calculating the rankings
  • Some schools have cheated the rankings by submitting false data


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