How do U.S. News’ Best Colleges rankings stack up against others?

Princeton slots in No. 1 again in ratings that include standardized test scores and expert opinion.

Within the past month, several services—Forbes, Times Higher Education and The Princeton Review—have released their rankings of higher education institutions.

The dizzying array of who’s who, where they rank and which is the most influential or most accurate can be confusing. Perhaps the most anticipated, most criticized and often most referenced is the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges, which was released on Monday.

There were few surprises among the U.S. News National Universities rankings as Princeton University took the No. 1 position for the 11th straight year, ahead of Harvard and Columbia universities, which tied for second. UCLA led the way among public universities, while Williams College earned the top slot among national liberal arts colleges.

The overall rankings, heavily scrutinized by experts who believe some of the methodology measures of academic quality across more than 1,400 institutions are skewed or outdated, remain highly popular among students and families. This is the 37th year of the “Best Colleges” report and comes after one of the most trying academic years for postsecondary institutions.

“Students and faculty continue to feel the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s through remote learning, mask-wearing or vaccine requirements,” said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News. “As communities work through these challenges, U.S. News is committed to providing information on the academic quality of institutions across the country, so prospective students and their families can make informed decisions throughout their college search.”

What is notable about the U.S. News rankings is the number of ties. Effectively, there are 12 institutions in its National Universities Top 10, because Columbia, Harvard and MIT come in at No. 2 behind Princeton and because at No. 9 there are four—California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern. Sandwiched in between are Yale, Stanford and the University of Chicago (another tie at No. 6), and the University of Pennsylvania.

There are also 12 in its Public Colleges Top 10 because of a four-way tie in the final slot among Georgia Tech, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of California-Davis and William & Mary. UCLA took top honors in the category, nosing out UC-Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which were in the 2-4 spots, respectively. Three institutions were tied at No. 5—UC-Santa Barbara, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. UC-San Diego and UC-Irvine were at Nos. 8 and 9.

Inside the reports

In the U.S. News report, two areas that lend significant weight to the rankings but that have come under fire are the continued use of SAT/ACT scores as well as something referred to as “expert opinion.” U.S. News & World Report states in its methodology that “academic reputation matters because it factors in things that cannot easily be captured elsewhere.” It cites the example of innovative ways of instruction that may not be measured otherwise. At the same time, that does also open up the potential for subjective rankings, or rankings that appear to be the same every year based on reputation.

As for standardized test scores, U.S. News still includes them under “student excellence” and they are weighted at 5%. It says it “lowered the threshold of submissions necessary for schools to receive full credit for their incoming students’ SAT/ACT performance. Now, schools’ values used in the rankings are discounted by 15% only if total SAT and ACT scores reported comprise less than 50% of the entering class. Previously, the threshold was 75%.” Those that did not report their scores or declined the option saw their value in the ranking drop by 15%.

U.S. News does heavily factor in outcomes such as graduation and retention rates, plus social mobility and indebtedness (40%), as well as faculty resources (20%), including class size, salary and student-faculty ratio.

In Forbes’ 13th annual list of “America’s Top Colleges,” it revamped its methodology based on “return on investment and outcomes” that institutions fostered for students. It noted that one of its metrics looked more closely at how quickly students are paying off debt, while another looked at time-to-completion rates. But other than the University of California-Berkeley slotting in at No. 1 overall—a stunning leader that upstaged previous perennial champ Harvard—many of the same institutions appear in the U.S. News top 10. Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, MIT, Penn and Northwestern are all in Forbes’ top 10, too. Though UCLA does appear in the Forbes Top 10 and not in U.S. News, Cal Tech, Johns Hopkins and Duke are in both. And though there are differences in methodology, the two arrived at the same number of public institutions in its top 50: 16.

The Times Higher Education world rankings rated the California Institute of Technology at No. 1, followed by Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, Yale, the University of Chicago, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Princeton Review highlights the “Best 387 Colleges” and this year published 26 great lists across a range of categories, including institutions with Great Financial Aid, Great Professors, Great Quality of Life and Great College City. Notably absent were their Top 20 lists.

“With most students attending college remotely this past year due to COVID, we knew it would be impossible to survey them about their on-campus experiences—from how they rated their college library to their campus food,” said Rob Franek, Editor in Chief of The Princeton Review and author of The Best 387 Colleges. “After all, the majority of them were dining in their family dining rooms, not their campus dining halls. We look forward to returning to our traditional and robust student survey process in the 2021-22 academic year ahead.”

More from the U.S. News report

Though U.S. News does have its benchmark overall national universities ranking, it also has a Best Value Colleges ranking. This year that was led by Yale University and included three more Ivy League schools (Harvard, Princeton, Columbia), as well as Stanford and MIT. Rice University, Brigham Young University, Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill all made the cut.

Those in the Top 50 included:

  • 13. Dartmouth College
  • 14. Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Washington University in St. Louis
  • 17. (tie) Cornell University, Rice University
  • 19. University of Notre Dame
  • 20. UCLA
  • 21. Emory University
  • 22. University of California, Berkeley
  • 23. (tie) Georgetown University, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • 25. (tie) Carnegie Mellon University, University of Virginia
  • 27. University of Southern California
  • 28. (tie) New York University, Tufts University, UC-Santa Barbara, University of Florida, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University
  • 34. UC-San Diego, University of Rochester
  • 36. Boston College, UC-Irvine
  • 38. Georgia Tech, UC-Davis, University of Texas-Austin, William & Mary
  • 42. Boston University, Brandeis University, Case Western Reserve University, Tulane University, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • 47. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
  • 48. University of Georgia
  • 49. Lehigh University, Northeastern University, Ohio State University, Pepperdine University, Purdue University, Villanova University

Other notable rankings from the U.S. News & World Report:

National Liberal Arts Colleges: Three of the top five were from Massachusetts, including Williams College at No. 1., Amherst College at No. 2 and Wellesley College at No. 5. Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Pomona College in California came in 4 and 5, respectively.

Regional Universities: In the North, Providence College, Bentley University and Fairfield University came in at 1-2-3; in the South, Rollins College beat out The Citadel and James Madison University for the top spot; in the West, Trinity University (Texas) topped Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and the University of Portland; and in the Midwest, Bradley University and John Carroll University tied at No. 2 behind Butler University.

A+ schools for B students: Based on more open selectivity, U.S. News noted a list of colleges from its rankings where students can get a great education. It was led by the University of Indiana at Bloomington and followed by Gonzaga University, Elon University, Howard University, Marquette, Michigan State University and the University of Iowa.

HBCUs: Spelman College and Howard University ranked 1-2, respectively, and were followed by Xavier University of Louisiana, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, Florida A&M University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Fisk University, Claflin University and Delaware State University.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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