Primer: The many ways of ranking America's top colleges

Comparing methodologies

As rankings proliferate, they can quickly begin to run together.

The EAB Daily Briefing team identifies the top six rankings you need to know about and summarizes their different criteria. Consider this your quick reference guide the next time a university is called "the best" at something.

U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges

Schools are categorized according to Carnegie classifications, including:

  • National Universities—range of undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs; an emphasis on faculty research
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges—focus nearly entirely on undergraduates, at least 50% of degrees awarded are in arts and sciences.

Data is collected on 16 academic indicators, which are then weighted based on importance. Each school's composite score determines where it falls in relation to its peers.

The 16 indicators are:

  • Reputation (22.5%)—determined by the two most recent assessments by administrators at peer institutions, and for National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges, three years of high school ratings of colleges.
  • Retention (22.5%)—six-year graduation rate (80%) and freshman retention rate (20%).
  • Faculty resources (20%)— proportion of classes with 20 or fewer students (30%), proportion of classes with more than 49 students (10%), faculty salary (35%), proportion of faculty with the highest possible degree in their field (15%), student-faculty ratio (5%), proportion of full-time faculty (5%).
  • Selectivity (12.5%)—SAT and ACT scores (65%), students who graduated in the top of their high school classes (25%), acceptance rate (10%).
  • Financial resources (10%)—average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and educational costs. Funding for hospitals, sports, and student housing does not count.
  • Alumni giving rate (5%)—rate of living alumni with bachelor's degrees who donate to their schools.
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%)—the difference between the six-year rate predicted by U.S. News and the actual rate.

Composite score calculation:

A curve calculated according to the top school in each category after totaling each school's score.

Some schools are unranked because they lack:

  • SAT or ACT scores for first-year, first-time applicants;
  • Responses about them from the 2014 peer assessment survey;
  • Enrollment of more than 199 students; or
  • First-year students.

Princeton Review

The 62 annual college ranking lists are based on responses to an 80-question student survey. Researchers measure answer choices across a five-point Likert scale to measure consensus.

The 2015 version asked 136,000 students at 380 schools about:

  • Academics and administration;
  • College life;
  • Fellow students; and
  • The respondents themselves.

Each institution earns a score for its students' answers to each question. Some lists are based on one question, such as "How do you rate your campus food?" while others combine answers to several questions. 

Forbes' Top Colleges

Forbes says their rankings stand out by focusing more on the value students get out of a college than what a student has to do to get into the college. To determine the top overall colleges, CCAP researchers analyzed schools along 12 factors, grouped into five weighted categories: student satisfaction (25%); post-graduate success (32.5%); student debt (25%); graduation rate (7.5%); and academic success (10%).

Each school's 2015 ranking was also influenced by its 2013 and 2014 scores. Ultimately, researchers ranked 650 institutions nationwide. Forbes also ranked "Best Value Schools" by dividing each institution's overall score by its published tuition for in-state students. College Salary Report researchers analyze data from 1.5 million employees representing 1,000 colleges that the website collects through an online survey. Researchers compared median salaries of early and mid-career professionals with the colleges where those individuals earned their undergraduate degrees.

PayScale also makes separate rankings comparing colleges whose graduates are very engaged in their work, tend to major in STEM fields, and earned the most without going on to graduate school.  

MONEY's Best Colleges

MONEY magazine's ranking seeks to answer a simple question: Which colleges and universities are worth the return on the investment of attending them? From the total pool of 1,500 four-year institutions, researchers eliminated those with low graduation rates, financial red flags, and those with insufficient data or that require military service.

Then, researchers ranked schools according to 21 factors grouped into three categories: quality of education, alumni outcomes, and affordability.

Washington Monthly

The editors of Washington Monthly say their ranking's metrics represent ideals for the entire higher education system. This ranking focuses on three categories: upward mobility, research, and service. Washington Monthly researchers assigned each school a score within each category based on data from a variety of sources, such as applications submitted to the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and National Science Foundation records on institutional research spending ( release; MONEY release; Washington Monthly release).

Other Rankings

Just for fun, here's a list of other college lists from our archives:

And one rating we all waited for—only to watch it fizzle out—from the federal government.

EAB Daily Briefing

What's in a ranking?

Next in Today's Briefing

EAB Primer: What do the federal 'gainful employment' standards mean for higher education?

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