How Are Colleges Ranked?
By Joanna Nesbit
College rankings can influence many students’ thinking about where to go to college. It’s easy to be convinced that schools at the top of the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings are better than ones that are lower or don’t rank. But rankings should be only one consideration as you explore colleges.
The U.S. News & World Report college rankings have been around since 1983 and are considered the gold standard. But all rankings are subjective. For example, some of the rankings use student surveys to gather data. Which students respond to the surveys influences the data. And the outcomes won’t necessarily tell you which college is the best fit for you.
Plus, several undergraduate colleges have decided to opt out of the U.S. News rankings because they say reducing a college to a single number is flawed. Those schools won’t even appear in the rankings, including:
- Columbia University
- Rhode Island School of Design
- Colorado College
- Bard College
- Stillman College
- And a number of law schools and medical schools
Here are three college ranking systems and how they work, along with some other resources.
U.S. News & World Report
The U.S. News system places each school in a category based on its academic mission (for example, research university or liberal arts college) and, in some cases, its location (North, South, Midwest, and West). U.S. News gathers data from each school in up to 17 areas related to academic quality, which fall into six broad categories. Each indicator is then assigned a weight (a percentage of how much it factors into the final ranking based on a framework set by U.S. News and the Carnegie Classification):
- Outcomes (graduation rates; retention rates, or the number of new students who come back the next fall; social mobility; indebtedness, or how many students graduate with debt) = 40%
- Faculty resources (class size, faculty salaries, student-faculty ratio, etc.) = 20%
- Expert opinion (academic reputation ranked by top academics) = 20%
- Financial resources (how much money a college spends per student) = 10%
- Student excellence (standardized test scores, high school standing) = 7%
- Alumni giving = 3%
Because U.S. News separates out the colleges into groups, it’s easier to compare similar colleges. But if you’re trying to compare colleges from different categories, like regional universities from the West with regional universities from the South, it may be hard to figure out how they compare to each other. For example, determining average cost of attendance or student earnings across categories will take a bit more work.
Money revamped its rankings in 2023 and focused on three main attributes in its methodology: quality, affordability, and student outcomes. Cost of attendance is a key metric. Money’s new system gives each college a star rating rather than a number ranking. Starting with more than 2,400 colleges, Money’s system trimmed the list to 736 colleges that met its qualifications. These schools are measured according to the following criteria:
- Quality of education (graduation rate, access to professors and other instructors, Pell Grant recipient outcomes, and more) = 30%
- Affordability (net price, or what students end up paying after financial aid and loans; how much debt students graduate with; and whether students are able to repay their debt) = 40%
- Outcomes (how much graduates earn 10 years out, employment outcomes for graduates, return on investment, or how much graduates earn compared to how much their education cost, etc.) = 30%
Like U.S. News, Money ranks schools in different categories like region (West, South, Midwest, and Northeast) and public status. But it also has a category of schools with high acceptance rates so you can easily compare these.
Money’s rankings also feature an overall Best Colleges category, but the list looks completely different from the U.S. News list because affordability is one of Money’s top concerns. The schools aren’t ranked by prestige but by measures that include how affordable the schools are. If affordability is important to you, Money’s ranking system might be a good one to look at.
Similar to Money, Forbes emphasizes the importance of student outcomes, like first-year retention rate (how many students finish their first year), post-graduation earnings, and student debt. The general categories Forbes measures include the following:
- Alumni salary = 20%
- Student debt = 15%
- Return on investment (how much graduates earn compared to how much their education cost) = 15%
- Graduation rate = 15%
- Forbes American Leaders List (how many graduates of each school received major awards or held high office) = 15%
- Retention rate (the number of new students who come back the next fall) = 10%
- Academic success 10%
Other College Rankings
Beyond these three, two other college ranking systems to explore are Niche and the Princeton Review’s list of the best 388 colleges, the latter of which is updated every year.
Another useful resource for exploring schools with a financial lens is Peterson’s “How to Get Money for College,” updated every two to three years. Not a strict rankings guide, this book focuses on schools’ profiles of financial aid offered, scholarships, average aid packages, and average indebtedness.