How Are College Rankings Determined? Discover How Much You Can Trust Them


Each year, resources like the U.S. News & World Report provide rankings of colleges across America as a way to learn more about schools and to help narrow down your college choice. While many find them helpful, how reliable are these lists? Let’s take a dive into the picture they paint.

To calculate its annual rankings, U.S. News & World Report uses a formula based on two ingredients: quantitative measures that indicate academic quality and its own subjective but researched view of what matters in education.

A girl sits in front of her computer looking into what college is the best fit for her.

This is how it works…

U.S. News first places each school into 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). National universities, which focus on research and offer several doctoral programs are ranked separately from national liberal arts colleges. Regional universities and regional colleges are compared with other schools in the same group and region.

Next, data are solicited from each school in 15 areas related to academic quality. Indicators of academic quality fall into six broad categories. Each indicator is then assigned a weight (expressed as a percentage) based on the U.S. News and The Carnegie Classification.

  1. Outcomes (35%)
  2. Faculty Resources (20%)
  3. Expert Opinion (20%)
  4. Financial Resources (10%)
  5. Student Excellence (10%)
  6. Alumni Giving (5%)

Third, colleges are ranked based on their composite weighted score and the numerical rankings of roughly the top three-fourths of schools in each category are published.

If institutions don’t require SAT or ACT test scores in admissions decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants, they are considered unranked and listed separately by category. 

Confusing, right? The bottom line is this: while these lists can be helpful, they should be viewed as only part of the picture and not the whole story. You can learn valuable information from them, but they should not be used as your sole resource when deciding on which schools to apply to. Think of it like this: college ranking systems don’t capture the “best” colleges any more than Billboard’s Hot 100 List captures the “best” music at a given time.

For more information on how to choose a college that is a good fit  for you, take our Right Fit Quiz and explore  other resources on our website.

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