In year of change, Princeton still No. 1 in ‘Best Colleges’

The 2021 U.S. News and World Report annual rankings adjust for key factors affecting students during COVID-19, but many of the elite universities remain near the top
By: | September 14, 2020
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A quick glance at the 2021 annual rankings of “Best Colleges” released by U.S. News & World Report Monday likely won’t raise many eyebrows.

Steadfast and strong, many of the elite higher institutions that have dotted previous individual top 10s largely remain the same. Princeton University has retained the top spot at No. 1 overall, followed by fellow Ivy League schools Harvard and Columbia.

But dig deeper and there are new metrics and new ratings that appear. In this year of sea change, where uncertainty and upheaval have afflicted nearly every college and university, the publication made several key adjustments that now factor in, among other things, the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on recruiting and retention of students. Though those new data points didn’t strongly impact this year’s numbers, they likely will in the future.

For example, the rankings now include “test-blind schools” (that don’t factor in SAT or ACT scores) for the first time as well as analytics that now account for graduate indebtedness and new weights for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and student outcomes.

“The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote,” said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News. “Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them.”

The elite schools

More than 1,800 institutions were considered and rated on this year’s Best Colleges list. The most popular among them is the overall rankings list headed by Princeton, which was also crowned the No. 1 National University.

The others that cracked the Top 10 included Yale, Stanford, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania as well as three that tied for the No. 9 spot – Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and the California Institute of Technology. Duke University came in a spot below at No. 12.

Three more Ivy League schools made it into the Top 20 – Dartmouth (13), Brown (14) and Cornell (18) – and also included traditional education powers Vanderbilt, Rice, Washington University in St. Louis and UCLA, which also was listed as the top public university in the U.S.

The highest jump within the top 50 was the University of Miami, which rose eight spots to No. 49. It was tied there with Northeastern University, which made the biggest fall from its ranking at No. 40 last year. Northeastern remained as the No. 1 school in the nation for co-op/internship opportunities, one of the key metrics being considered by incoming freshmen.

Breaking it down further

Another key factor being scrutinized by students and parents is first-year experiences. Three schools in the South – Agnes Scott College in Georgia, Elon University in North Carolina and the University of South Carolina – rated highest in providing an intimate setting for students to interact with faculty in small groups to help them “feel connected” to their universities, according to U.S. News. Elon also ranked No. 1 among Learning Universities, followed by Yale and Agnes Scott.

Staying close to home also has been an important theme during the pandemic.

  • Among schools in the South, Rollins College in Florida rated highest as editors noted its freshman retention rate at 85% and its small class sizes (65% are 20 or less) as positive factors. The Citadel in South Carolina ranked No. 2, while James Madison came in at No. 3.
  • In the North region, Bentley College in Massachusetts pulled into a tie in the top spot with Providence College, followed by Fairfield University.
  • In the Midwest, Butler University was No.1, ahead of John Carroll University in Ohio and Calvin University in Michigan.
  • Among regional universities in the West, Trinity University in Texas along with the University of Portland and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo earned top three honors.

Maybe the most important measure being considered by students is best value. U.S. News & World Report’s top five includes Harvard, Princeton, Gallaudet, Yale and MIT. In addition, social mobility has become a major factor, and colleges that are best at providing economically disadvantaged students with Pell Grants are four from the University of California system – UC Riverside, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced – as well as Rutgers University.

The report’s authors also looked at volunteerism, or in-service learning, and asked more than 1,500 colleges and universities to nominate institutions that offered the best programs. The winner: Barea College in Kentucky, followed by Elon and Tulane.

One of the other unique features of the study was a look at Senior Capstone, or projects that final-year students put together to encapsulate the work they’ve done on campus. Princeton, Elon and Brown provided the best opportunities.

The report highlights 100 different categories – everything from A-plus schools for B students (Florida State was No. 1) to most debt (Jackson State), least debt (University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras) and to most campus diversity (University of Hawaii-Hilo).

Academically speaking

In addition to the overall and regional rankings, U.S. News & World Report delineates its best college by curriculum offerings, too. This year, it added a new category, computer science, one of the hottest areas of studies for students. In that segment, more than 450 schools were evaluated. MIT eged out Carnegie Mellon and Stanford for overal top honors.

The report further breaks down the category by specialty across nine areas. Though MIT scored big in several areas including programming languages, Carnegie Mellon was rated best for artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and software engineering, while UC Berkeley was No. 1 in computer systems and data analytics.

The top three Best Colleges among other individual categories:

Business programs: University of Pennsylvania, MIT, UC Berkeley

Top public universities: UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan

Historically Black Universities and Colleges: Spelman College, Howard University, Xavier University (Louisiana).

Engineering (doctorate offered): MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley

Colleges for veterans: Stanford, Dartmouth, Brown

Most innovative: Arizona State, MIT, Georgia State

National Liberal Arts Colleges: Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore

Best regional colleges: North: Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut; South: High Point University in North Carolina; Midwest: Cottey College in Missouri; West: Carroll College in Montana.


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com