College Rankings Explained

Almost every prospective college student and parent has taken at least a passing glance at the U.S. News and World Report annual college rankings. Every year, U.S. News and World Report releases a comprehensive list of what they deem to be the best undergraduate universities in the United States. A quick look at the 2018 edition’s top ten schools shows the usual suspects: five of the top ten spots are occupied by Ivy League universities (with Princeton, Harvard, and Yale respectively ranking first, second, and third), while other perennial academic titans like the University of Chicago, MIT, and Stanford University round out the list.

U.S. News is not the only organization that issues college rankings. Niche, a college research website, offers a more qualitative and student-focused school ranking list. A look at their rankings shows a similar, though not mirror image of U.S. News’; here we see Stanford at number one, followed by MIT and Harvard. As one scrolls down the list, however, more severe discrepancies emerge. Why does U.S. News rank University of California, Berkeley at number twenty-one on their list, while Niche ranks the same university at number forty-four, for example? A deeper dig into the methodology of each publication reveals both how these sorts of differences come about, as well as how subjective these rankings truly are.

How do are college rankings calculated?

Both U.S. News and Niche rely on a series of quantitative and qualitative factors in their methodology.

US News

U.S. News focuses on seven broad factors with varying weight:

Graduation and retention rates (22.5%)
What percentage of students remain enrolled in the university after their freshman year, and what percentage of students eventually go on to graduate?

Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%)
How do other school officials, both in peer institutions and in high schools, view the reputation of the university?

Faculty resources (20%)
How large is the average class at the university?
How well is the faculty compensated, and what academic credentials do the professors tend to have?
What percentage of the faculty works full-time at the university?

Student selectivity (12.5%)
What is the university’s acceptance rate?
What is the academic profile of the average student? This is measured in terms of standardized test scores as well as high school grades and class ranking, if applicable.

Financial resources (10%)
How much money is the university spending per student?

Graduation rate performance (7.5%)
What percentage of students are not only graduating, but graduating within four years?

Alumni giving rate (5%)
On average, how much money do alumni of the university donate after graduation?


Niche’s methodology, unlike U.S. News’, combines quantitative data with student and alumni reviews. Like U.S. News, Niche weighs each factor differently.

Academics (35%)
What is the university’s acceptance rate?
What is the quality of the faculty?
What are the opinions of current students and alumni on their university?

Value (25%)
How worthy of an investment is the university?
How much student loan debt is the average graduate saddled with?
What are the salaries of recent graduates like?
How do students perceive the value of their university?

Professors (10%)
How decorated are the university’s faculty?
What is the student-faculty ratio?
What are students’ opinions of their professors?

Student Life (7.5%)
Do students feel that their university has a vibrant social life?
How diverse is the student body?
How safe is the university?

Overall Experience (7.5%)
On a scale from 1-5, how do current students as well as alumni rate their overall experience at the university?

Campus Grade (5%)
What is the quality of the university’s dining, housing, and other miscellaneous facilities?

Diversity Grade (5%)
How diverse is the university in terms of ethnicity, nationality, and socio-economic standing?

Local Area (2.5%)
What are students’ opinions regarding the outlying area surrounding the campus?
How expensive is rent on average, what amenities are available to students, and what is the status of local crime rates?

Safety (2.5%)
How much crime is there on campus?
What are students’ views of the university’s health and safety facilities?

What do these rankings mean?

As can be seen, different publications use different methodologies. There is no uniform, objective criteria that can confidently declare a university to be the undisputed “best.” A publication like U.S. News places heavy emphasis on graduation and retention rates, while Niche considers investment and post-graduation financial status to be incredibly important factors in their algorithm. It is critical to recognize that these ranking systems, while useful to a certain extent, are extremely simplified snapshots of universities that do not capture anything approaching a full, nuanced picture of the complex experience and personality that a university offers.

The prevalence of these rankings in the media has also impacted the ways that universities divert their resources. The rat race to earn those coveted positions in the Top Thirty or Top Twenty of these lists has led universities to seek ways to decrease their acceptance rates and increase their name recognition among the general public – namely, by conducting mass marketing campaigns to drive up application numbers. Metrics like high school counselor and university official assessments also naturally skew toward those brand-name schools that typically dominate these rankings, and offer very little insight into the undergraduate education that a university offers.

So how should you approach college rankings?

In a nutshell, these rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. Students and parents must remember that these rankings are not personalized to each student and parent’s criteria and goals. Student body size, climate, and cost of attendance are just some of the many legitimate factors that should play into a student’s school choice. There are hundreds of US universities that provide high-quality education for students with a range of academic interests, aspirations, and accomplishments.

Ultimately, what is most important is not brand or acceptance rate or ranking, but fit. A student should attend a university that fits their personality and their goals, because that is where they will truly thrive and lay the most solid groundwork for their personal, professional, and academic futures. Choosing to apply to or attend a university based solely on brand name rather than location, academic strength and specialization, or professional opportunities ignores some of the most critical components of the US undergraduate experience. Visiting a university’s campus, while not always the most feasible option, is one method that can offer tremendous insight into a university’s character. Hale’s goal as an organization is to help students find the university that is the best fit for them – whether that school is assigned an arbitrary ranking of five or five-hundred.

Wes Huang is an educational consultant and a graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi

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