How Important Are U.S. News Best Rankings?

U.S. News & World Report released its first list of annual college rankings in 1983. Since then, prospective students (and their parents) have used the rankings as a guide for where to consider going to school. While the rankings can be a valuable tool, they’re also quite controversial in that they tend to favor prestigious schools where the student populations largely come from white, affluent families.

Critics of the U.S. News college rankings often point out that much of the data used to compile the rankings is provided by “experts” who range from high school guidance counselors to admissions counselors and faculty members at various higher education institutions. The problem? Many of these experts are scoring institutions without knowing much about them, making their opinions — and the scores — difficult to take seriously. The rankings also receive criticism for their weighting system, for example, by weighing reputation more heavily than social mobility.

Despite this, the rankings can still make a difference in college enrollment levels, leading many institutions to seek recognition from U.S. News in the hopes of generating more interest from prospective students.

Value of U.S. News College Rankings              

The 2022 Best Colleges list reflects nearly 40 years of ranking colleges for U.S. News. The outlet explains that it assessed 1,500 U.S. bachelor’s degree-granting institutions on 17 academic quality measures. A good ranking on the Best Colleges list means greater exposure to prospective students and their parents, which can help increase application and enrollment rates.

Group Ranking Categories 

U.S. News groups schools by academic mission into 10 ranking categories, as listed below. Within each category, it calculates the sum of weighted, normalized values across 17 indicators of academic quality to determine each school’s overall score and, ultimately, ranking:

U.S. News uses the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s Basic Classification system to map its categories.

Top-Ranked Colleges in the U.S.         

Not surprisingly, prestigious schools maintained their positions among the top rankings for 2022. Critics of U.S. News’ annual rankings say the outlet rewards prestige and wealth, according to Inside Higher Ed. For example, here are the top-ranked colleges in the U.S. in each category:

  • National Universities: Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard
  • National Liberal Arts Universities: Williams, Amherst, and Pomona 
  • Regional Universities: Providence College (North), Rollins College (South), Butler University (Midwest), and University of Portland (West)
  • Regional Colleges: United States Coast Guard Academy (North), High Point University (South), Cottey College (Midwest), and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — Prescott (West)

Many of these institutions have a strong reputation regardless of their U.S. News college ranking, but the recognition they receive from the outlet certainly doesn’t hurt when prospective students are seeking admission to the “best” institutions. That being said, critics complain that institutions attended by predominantly wealthy and high-achieving students are naturally going to have high post-college success rates. In the past, U.S. News gave little consideration to institutions’ work in the areas of accessibility and equity, such as enrolling students who are less likely to succeed based on their socioeconomic background.

Methodology Overview: How U.S. News Ranks Colleges    

Though it has been ranking colleges and universities for decades, U.S. News states that it is always refining the process based on user feedback, discussions with higher ed institutions, literature reviews, trends in its own data, and other factors. Part of the outlet’s methodology includes using only thoroughly vetted academic data, which is why it does not give weight to aspects of student life such as athletics and social life.

U.S. News added “social mobility” as a factor in its rankings in the last few years, which assesses institutions’ efforts to help students from disadvantaged families move into the middle class through the opportunities that often accompany a college education. While the new addition is helping some institutions with diverse student populations climb up the lower levels of the rankings, Ivy League universities still dominate the top positions because of the weight that the other factors receive. 

No changes occurred in 2022 in terms of the ranking factors and their corresponding weights. In light of this, the U.S. News college ranking factors are still influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it’s had on higher education. 

The U.S. News College Ranking Factors 

U.S. News reports using multiple measures to capture the various dimensions of quality at each institution it ranks. These measures fall into nine broad areas:

  1. Graduation and retention rates
  2. Undergraduate academic reputation 
  3. Faculty resources for the 2021-2022 academic year
  4. Financial resources per student 
  5. Graduation rate performance
  6. Student selectivity for the fall 2021 entering class 
  7. Social mobility
  8. Graduate indebtedness 
  9. Average alumni giving rate

Indicators include input measures, which assess the quality of students, faculty, and other resources in education, and output measures, which look at the results of the education students receive.

U.S. News College Ranking Variables  

As shown on its website, U.S. News applied the following weight to the ranking factors for 2022:

1. Graduation and Retention Rates (22%)

This factor covers the average six-year graduation rate and the average retention rate of first-year students.

2. Undergraduate Academic Reputation (20%)

This factor measures how an institution is ranked by administrators, including presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions, at other institutions in the same ranking category.

3. Faculty Resources for 2021-2022 Academic Year (20%)

This factor looks at class-size index, faculty compensation, the percentage of faculty members with terminal degrees in their fields, the percentage of faculty members who are full-time employees, and the student-faculty ratio.

4. Financial Resources per Student (10%)

This factor measures the average spending per full-time-equivalent student on instruction, research, public services, academic support, student services, and institution support during the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.

5. Graduation Rate Performance (8%)

This factor compares the actual six-year graduation rate for students who entered school in fall 2014 and fall 2015 with the predicted graduation rate for the classes.

6. Student Selectivity for the Fall 2021 Entering Class (7%)

“Student selectivity” evaluates first-year students’ performance on the math and evidence-based reading and writing portions of the SAT and the composite ACT, as well as the proportion of students who were in the top 10% and 25% of their high school class.

7. Social Mobility (5%)</h4>

This factor measures the success of economically disadvantaged students by comparing the graduation rates of students who received Pell Grants to the graduation rates of those who did not receive Pell Grants over the last six years.

8. Graduate Indebtedness (5%)

This factor looks at the number of graduates who had federal loan debt. This is a percentage calculation based on the 2020 and 2021 bachelor’s degree graduating classes. 

9. Average Alumni Giving Rate (3%)

This rate is the mean percentage of undergraduate alumni of record who donated money to their alma mater.

How Should Students Use U.S. News College Rankings?

U.S. News chief data strategist Robert Morse writes that the outlet’s college rankings are a great starting point for prospective students and their parents. The Best Colleges guide allows students to compare and contrast colleges based on their rankings, he says, and it provides detailed information for each ranking.

Morse encourages prospective students to dive deep into the guide and discover schools that they may not have heard of to get a better idea of which institutions they can see themselves at. Students can use the guide to gather information on a school’s size, location, cost, etc.

How Can Colleges Improve Their U.S. News Rankings?

The arguments surrounding the validity of the U.S. News college rankings are proof enough that the rankings don’t equal college success, but institutions can use them to improve their value and campus programs by rethinking the ways in which they are marketing to prospective students. Staying relevant should be top of mind for any institution, and if efforts to do so end up with a better U.S. News college ranking, then that’s an added bonus.

Some outreach efforts that have helped institutions improve their rankings by increasing their enrollment of high-quality students include:

  • Utilizing social media to reach and engage with prospective students
  • Streamlining application processes
  • Building targeted marketing campaigns that speak to the factors that influence rankings
  • Hosting webinars
  • Featuring expert roundups

Let Archer’s Experts Help You Improve Your College Rankings

Archer Education’s team of digital marketing experts is here to help you elevate your brand and meet your enrollment goals. We can work with you on engaging with prospective students through messaging that tells your story and lets future students see themselves at your institution, regardless of your rankings.