How U.S. News Calculated the 2016 Best Colleges Rankings

Here’s how you can make the most of the key college statistics


By Erin Palmer
September 9, 2015


Most people know that the 2016 Best Colleges rankings can be a helpful tool in the search for the right college. But not everyone knows about the quantitative data that goes into the calculations of the rankings.

Here is an overview of the methodology used by U.S. News and World Report to determine the 2016 Best Colleges rankings. 

How the Categories are Determined

The Best Colleges rankings are split into the following categories: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges. Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are further broken down into four regions: North, South, Midwest and West.

Though U.S. News named the categories, the categories themselves have been created with the same underlying principle since they were first published in 1983.

The Carnegie classification serves as the basis for the rankings categories. This system is used throughout higher education research to determine groups of similar institution types for comparison purposes.

Two Sets of Survey Results Used for Academic Peer Scores 

U.S. News changed two things for the 2016 Best Colleges rankings.  In the compilation of the ranking indicators, the 2016 edition of the rankings now used two sets of survey results to determine the academic peer scores.

The most recent survey data, collected in spring 2014 and spring 2015, were used in order to decrease volatile year-to-year shifts.

A similar change was made for the high school counselor ratings, with three years of survey results now going into the score instead of just two.

The rest of the methodology for the 2016 Best Colleges rankings, including the ranking indicators and their weights, remained the same as the 2015 rankings.

Ranking Model Indicators and Their Weights 

U.S. News uses a range of indicators to determine the Best Colleges rankings. There is an assessment that is given to college administrators. Other factors include student retention rates, selectivity of students, faculty resources, financial resources, graduation rate and rate of alumni giving.

For the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories, high school counselor ratings are also included.

Here are the weights of each category, along with a brief description:

  • Assessment to determine the academic reputation of the undergraduate programs (22.5%): The peer assessment survey is given to high-ranking personnel at different institutions, like deans of admissions, provosts and presidents. This section is also where the high school counselor rankings come into play for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories. For these categories, the academic peer assessment accounts for 15% and the high school counselors’ portion accounts for 7.5%.
  • Student retention (22.5%): This metric is made up mostly (80%) by an institution’s six-year graduation rate. The remaining 20% of the score is based on the institution’s first-year retention rate. 
  • Faculty resources (20%): Six factors are used to determine this part of the score, each with its own weight. Class size is factored by the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30% of the score) and the proportion of classes with 50 students or more (10% of the score).
  • The salary of an institution’s faculty (average pay and benefits with regional adjustments) accounts for 35% of the score in this section. The rest of the score is determined by the proportion of professors who hold their field’s highest degrees (15%), the proportion of full-time faculty (5%) and the student-faculty ratio (5%).
  • Student selectivity (12.5%): There are three parts to this score, starting with the test scores of students’ reading and math portions of the SAT and their composite score for the ACT (65% of the score).
  • For the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories, the proportion of first-year students who were in the top 10% of their graduation class makes up 25% of the score. For the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories, this part of the score is determined by the proportion of first-year students who were in the top 25% of their graduation class.
  • The last 10% of the score in this section is determined by the ratio of admitted students to applicants.
  • Financial resources (10%): This section is calculated by the average spending per student in academic-related areas like research, instruction, student services and education-related expenditures. 
  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%): This section is measured by the difference between an institution’s six-year graduation rate and the rate that U.S. News predicted for a graduating class. If an institution’s graduation rate is higher than the U.S. News prediction, that school has over-performed. If their graduation rate is lower than the prediction, that school has under-performed. 
  • Rate of alumni giving (5%): This section is measured by the average percentage of alumni (with bachelor’s degrees from the intuition) who gave money to their institution during 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.

Why Are Some Schools Unranked?

Unranked schools may come into play for several reasons. If an institution does not use SAT or ACT scores for deciding admissions for first-time applicants, these schools may be unranked.

If a school does not have enough respondents from the 2014 and 2015 peer assessments, they may be unranked. Also, having a total student body of fewer than 200 enrolled students, a large number of nontraditional-aged students or no enrolled first-year students could lead to a school being unranked.

There are 130 institutions listed as unranked this year.