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Frequently Asked Questions: 2015 Best Colleges Rankings

Find answers to common queries about the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings

By U.S. News Staff
September 9, 2014

Why U.S. News Ranks Colleges

1. Why rank colleges?
 
A college education is one of the most important – and one of the most costly – investments that prospective students will ever make.
 
For this reason, the editors of U.S. News believe that students and their families should have as much information as possible about the comparative merits of the educational programs at America's colleges and universities.
 
The data we gather on colleges – and the rankings of the schools that arise from these data – serve as an objective guide by which students and their parents can compare the academic quality of schools.
 
When consumers purchase a car or a computer, this sort of information is readily available. We think it's even more important that comparative data help people make informed decisions about an education that can now cost more than $240,000 – including tuition, room, board, required fees, books, transportation and other personal expenses – for students paying the full sticker price for a bachelor's degree at some of the more expensive private universities.
 
2. Are the rankings objective and fair?
 
We do our utmost to make sure they are. Each school's rank, within its group of peer institutions, is based on the same set of quality measures.
 
Furthermore, 77.5% of a school's ranking in the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories is based on a formula that uses objective measures of academic quality, such as graduation rates, faculty information and admissions data.
 
The remaining 22.5% is based on academic reputation, determined by a peer assessment from top academics at colleges; in the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories, ratings from high school counselors are also factored in.
 
In the peer assessment survey, U.S. News asks the president, provost and dean of admissions at each school to rate the quality of the academic programs at schools in the same ranking category, including their own. Those unfamiliar with a particular school are asked to check a box labeled "don't know."
 
Peer assessments are subjective, but they are also important: A diploma from a distinguished college can help a graduate get good jobs and gain admission to top-notch graduate programs, just as a high school's reputation can help or harm an applicant's chances of getting into a good college.
 
3. Why are rankings helpful in choosing a college?
 
Rankings are helpful to applicants because they rate the strength of the academic program at each undergraduate institution. As such, the rankings give applicants information on a key factor to consider when selecting a college.
 
Furthermore, the rankings are based on accepted measures of academic quality chosen after careful reporting and research on measuring quality in education. U.S. News takes pains to gather data in a uniform way and eliminate any gaps.
 
Finally, the rankings condense a great deal of information about the quality of the education at each school, making it easier to compare institutions and select the best one for an individual.

How U.S. News Ranks Colleges

1. In brief, how does U.S. News rank colleges?
 
To rank colleges, U.S. News first places each school into a category based on its mission (research university or liberal arts college, for example) 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, and Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are compared with other schools in the same group and region.
 
Second, we gather data from and about each school in up to 16 areas related to academic excellence. Each indicator is assigned a weight (expressed as a percentage) based on our judgments about which measures of quality matter most.
 
Third, the colleges are ranked based on their composite weighted score. We publish the numerical rank of roughly the top three-fourths of schools in each category; the remaining lowest-ranked schools in each category are placed into the second tier based on their overall score. Schools in the second tier are labeled Rank Not Published and listed alphabetically.
 
The data for the 2015 edition of Best Colleges were gathered in the spring and summer of 2014.
 
2. Does U.S. News rank all colleges and universities?
 
Not quite. To be included in the rankings, a college or university must be regionally accredited and have a total enrollment of at least 200 students. Also, we do not rank certain schools for school-specific reasons. The main reason for schools being listed as Unranked is that they do not use the SAT or ACT in admissions decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants.
 
In addition, a small number of schools were not ranked because they didn't receive enough responses on the peer assessment survey conducted in spring 2014 to allow us to use their peer score as part of their overall rank.
 
In total, 148 schools in the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Colleges and Regional Universities categories are Unranked because of the above reasons. Unranked schools are listed alphabetically at the end of each category in which they would have been ranked.
 
We have been handling Unranked schools like this to some degree since 1990. U.S. News believes that because these schools are unable to report key educational characteristics or because they have certain other characteristics, it would be unfair to try to compare them statistically with the other schools that are part of the rankings.
 
Other types of schools have been Unranked in previous years and continue to be listed as Unranked this year. For example, 83 of the 1,596 regionally accredited U.S. institutions that are part of the U.S. News data collection universe are specialty institutions that offer most or all of their degrees in fine arts, performing arts, business or engineering.
 
We also have gathered information on nearly 200 more schools, including some nontraditional U.S. schools and some schools located outside of the U.S.; these schools are also listed as Unranked.
 
3. Why does the methodology change most years?
 
U.S. News refines its methodology for one simple reason: to improve it. There is an active and ongoing debate about how best to measure quality in education, and U.S. News pays close attention to that debate. When new or better ideas for measuring quality are proposed, we evaluate them carefully and make changes to ensure that we provide the best possible rankings to our readers.
 
For example, over time, the ranking model has put less emphasis on input measures of quality – which look at characteristics of the students, faculty and other resources going into the educational process – and more emphasis on output measures, which look at the results of the educational process, such as graduation and freshman retention rates. This shift was consistent with the increased emphasis that educators, researchers and policymakers have placed on results when comparing and evaluating educational programs.

4. What changes, if any, were made this year to the methodology and the rankings?

U.S. News did not make any changes to the ranking indicators or the ranking indicator weights used in the ranking methodology in the 2015 edition compared with the 2014 edition. In other words, there were no changes this year to the Best Colleges ranking methodology.
 
5. Why does U.S. News classify colleges into different categories before ranking them? How are the categories defined?
 
The purpose of grouping colleges into categories is to compare schools with similar missions. For example, schools that offer graduate programs and emphasize research are generally in different categories from colleges that focus exclusively on teaching undergraduates.
 
To define the categories, we used the 2010 Basic Classification system developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which is the most widely accepted classification system in higher education.
 
U.S. News collapses 12 of the Carnegie categories into four: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges. The Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are placed into one of four geographic categories: North, South, Midwest and West.
 
6. What are National Universities?
 
National Universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors as well as master's and doctoral degrees. In many cases, they place strong emphasis on research and receive federal money to support their research endeavors.
 
There are 280 National Universities – 173 public, 100 private and seven for-profit – based on the categories established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

7. What are National Liberal Arts Colleges?

National Liberal Arts Colleges emphasize undergraduate education. To be included in this category, colleges must award at least 50% of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines, such as languages and literature, biology and life sciences, philosophy, cultural studies and psychology. 
 
There are 249 National Liberal Arts Colleges – 221 private, 27 public and one for-profit.
 
8. What are Regional Universities and Regional Colleges?
 
Like National Universities, Regional Universities offer a full range of undergraduate programs and provide graduate education at the master's level. However, they differ by offering few, if any, doctoral programs. Of the 620 Regional Universities, 262 are public, 346 are private and 12 are for-profit.
 
The 364 Regional Colleges, including 94 public institutions, 253 private schools and 17 for-profits, focus on undergraduate education but grant less than 50% of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. The Regional Colleges category includes some institutions where only a small number of the degrees awarded are at the bachelor's level.
 
The Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are placed into one of four geographic categories: North, South, Midwest and West.
 
9. What are tiers, and why are some schools listed in tiers and not numerically ranked?
 
U.S. News publishes the numerical ranks of approximately the top 75% of schools in each of the categories. The remaining schools are placed in the bottom, or second, tier based on their overall score in their category. Schools in the second tier are labeled as Rank Not Published and listed alphabetically on usnews.com.
 
The second tier, also referred to as Tier Two, is approximately the bottom 25% of schools in a given category. In other words, schools listed in Tier Two are ranked lower than all those that are numerically ranked.
 
We believe that the data are complete enough to numerically rank schools in the top 75% of each category, given our robust methodology.
 
Another key reason we can rank that many schools numerically is that the quality of the data we collect has improved over the years, in part because of our ability to get data from other public sources, such as the U.S. Department of Education, for schools that don't report their data to U.S. News voluntarily.
 
These extended rankings also reduce ranking volatility, since far fewer schools will now drop in and out of the numerical rankings in any given year.
 
The numerical ranks for schools in Tier Two are not published since the data is not as complete and we want the numerical rankings to emphasize the top schools. U.S. News has calculated numerical ranks for schools listed as Rank Not Published and will give that information to the schools if they request it.

10. What measures of academic quality does U.S. News use in its rankings?

Indicators used to measure academic quality fall into seven broad areas: peer assessment; retention and graduation of students; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; alumni giving; and graduation rate performance, the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion who do.
 
The indicators include both input measures, which reflect the quality of students, faculty and other resources used in education, and outcome measures, such as graduation and freshman retention rates and graduation rate performance, which signal how well the institution educates its student body.
 
11. Where do the data used in the rankings come from?
 
Schools report most of the information directly to us. Each year, U.S. News sends an extensive questionnaire to all accredited four-year colleges and universities in late winter through spring.
 
This year's data collection for the 2015 edition of Best Colleges took place during the spring and summer of 2014. U.S. News is a founding member of the Common Data Set initiative. U.S. News incorporates items from the CDS and unique proprietary items on its survey.
 
When the surveys are returned, we enter and evaluate the data, checking for possible errors and consistency with related information. For example, SAT scores must fall in a particular range, and the score reported as the 25th percentile must be less than the score reported as the 75th percentile.
 
Where possible, we double check the data with information from other sources. For example, statistics about faculty salaries are compared with information collected by the American Association of University Professors.
 
For schools that don't return the questionnaires or don't answer all the questions, U.S. News uses comparable data from the Council for Aid to Education (for alumni giving rates), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (for graduation rates) and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (for SATs, ACTs, acceptance rates, graduation and freshman retention rates, student-faculty ratios, faculty counts, tuition, room and board, other student fees and financial resources), as well as data collected by U.S. News in previous years and data pulled from those schools' own websites.
 
In the case of colleges that have refused to fill out the U.S. News statistical survey during the spring and summer of 2014 and that are included as ranked schools in the 2015 rankings, we have made extensive use of the statistical data those institutions were required to report to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics on such factors as SAT and ACT scores, acceptance rates and faculty and retention rates.
 
12. Which measure of quality is most important?
 
First, remember that each measure that U.S. News uses in its rankings captures some important dimension of the academic program. The weight, expressed as a percentage, tells you the relative importance that U.S. News places on each measure.
 
The U.S. News formula puts an emphasis on outcomes, since measures of graduation and retention are the most heavily weighted factors in the Best Colleges rankings. In the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories, the ranking formula gives the graduation and retention measures a weight of 22.5%.
 
In addition, the ranking model for all categories includes graduation rate performance – a measure of whether a school is over- or underperforming in terms of graduating its students – with a 7.5% weight.
 
Overall, the factors that directly relate to graduation and retention have a total weight of 30 percent in the ranking methodology, far outweighing any other factor in the rankings.
 
The U.S. News ranking formula gives a weight of 22.5% to academic reputation scores because a diploma from a distinguished college helps graduates get good jobs or gain admission to top-notch graduate programs.
 
National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges are given two separate reputation scores – one based on a peer survey of academics, weighted at 15 percent, and one based on a survey of high school counselors, weighted at 7.5% – to arrive at the total of 22.5%. 
 
The Regional Universities and Regional Colleges rankings rely on one assessment score, by the academic peer group, for the full 22.5%.
 
We recommend that prospective students consider which indicators are especially important to them and look at those individual elements as well as the school's overall rank. Our website's search and sort capabilities make it simple to locate schools that are strong in a particular area.

13. How did U.S. News decide how much weight to give each indicator in its ranking formula?

Analysts at U.S. News have chosen the weights used in the ranking formula. Our views of the appropriate weights may differ from those of other higher education experts. The weights were chosen based on years of reporting about education, on reviews of research about education and after consultation with experts in higher education.
 
Over time, we have placed greater weight on the outcome measures of quality, such as graduation rate, and de-emphasized the input measures, such as high school standing and financial resources.
 
This change is consistent with a growing emphasis by education experts on outcomes in assessing the performance of complex institutions such as colleges.
 
There were not any changes to the indicator weights used in the ranking methodology in the 2015 edition compared with the 2014 edition.
 
14. Why did my school's rank go up – or down – this year?
 
Each school's circumstances are unique, but we can tell you in general terms why rank changes took place in the 2015 edition of Best Colleges.
 
The main reason a school moved up or down in the rankings is because some or all of the data it reported that was factored into the rankings moved higher or lower when compared with the previous year's data. A college's overall rank may change from one year to the next when its data varies either upward or downward on one or more measures of academic quality used by U.S. News in the rankings. Or, if the data didn't change, then a school's position when measured relative to one or more of its peers in its ranking category may have changed.
 
In other words, a school's rank can vary because its performance on a measure such as graduation and retention rates changes or because the performance of other schools in the same peer group on a measure such as graduation and retention rates changes.
 
Also, in some cases, schools reported more complete data – or less complete data – on the U.S. News statistical survey used to compile the 2015 edition of the rankings than they did on the survey used for the 2014 edition. A change in how schools report their data from one year to the next is the other key factor in why some schools have moved up or down in the rankings.
 
15. Why do private schools fare better than public schools in the U.S. News rankings?
 
Overall, private colleges and universities tend to do better on several measures in our ranking model, including student selectivity, graduation and retention rates and class size. Because of their mission to serve students in their state, public schools generally don't score as high on selectivity as private colleges, many of which have more stringent admissions standards.
 
In addition, public colleges and universities tend to have lower graduation and retention rates and larger classes.
 
Finally, the public schools often lack the financial resources of the better-endowed private universities or have suffered from continuing budget cuts due to slow-growth economic conditions that are still impacting some states.
 
Note: U.S. News publishes separate rankings of the Top Public Schools in each category.
 
16. Why doesn't U.S. News rank undergraduate specialty schools in fine arts, engineering or business?
 
Eighty-three of the 1,596 accredited undergraduate institutions in the U.S. that are in our data collection universe fall into a specialty category because they award most or all of their degrees in fine arts, performing arts, business or engineering.
 
These schools offer an important alternative for students aspiring to careers in particular fields. U.S. News provides pertinent data for each school but does not rank these institutions because there are too few in each category to allow a fair comparison and because their specialized focus would require a different system of ranking.
 
However, U.S. News does annually rank some the largest undergraduate majors. This year, as we have for many previous years, we ranked 464 undergraduate business programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and 387 undergraduate engineering programs accredited by ABET, formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
 
These rankings are based solely on peer assessment surveys that were sent in the spring of 2014. The results of these separate surveys are available on our website.
 
17. Does U.S. News consider economic diversity in its rankings?
 
Yes, for the ninth year in a row, we have included the proportion of the student body receiving Pell Grants in our predicted graduation rate formula, which now is used in all U.S. News ranking categories. Pell Grants are an important indicator of how many low-income students attend a school, and adding them resulted in a model that better captures the school's student body and improves that indicator.
 
More about Pell Grants can be found in our Economic Diversity table.
 
18. What does it mean when a school is marked as Rank Not Published or Unranked?
 
For the fourth year in a row, U.S. News has labeled all the schools in the second tier of the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges categories as Rank Not Published to explain why some schools don't have a numerical rank and score listed next to them.
 
Rank Not Published means that U.S. News did calculate a numerical rank and overall score for that school, but decided for editorial reasons not to publish the rank and score for that school on usnews.com. U.S. News publishes numerical ranks for only the top three-fourths of each ranking category. Schools labeled Rank Not Published are in the bottom 25% of their ranking category. 
 
U.S. News will supply schools listed as Rank Not Published with their numerical rank and score, if they submit a request following the procedures listed in the Information for School Officials page. Schools marked as Rank Not Published are listed alphabetically.
 
Unranked means that U.S. News did not calculate a numerical rank for that school. The school did not qualify to be numerically ranked by U.S. News. Schools marked as Unranked are listed alphabetically and are listed below those marked as Rank Not Published.
 
 
U.S. News believes that because schools listed as Unranked are unable to report key educational characteristics – for example, they can't submit SAT or ACT scores because they aren't used in admissions decisions – or because these schools have certain other characteristics, it would be unfair to try to compare them statistically with the other schools that are part of the rankings.
 
There is a more detailed explanation above and in the general methodology for why a school is listed as Unranked.
 
19. How does U.S. News handle for-profits in the rankings?
 
All regionally accredited for-profit institutions are included in the U.S. News data collection. For the fourth year in a row, U.S. News has included in the rankings all for-profit colleges and universities that grant bachelor's degrees, are regionally accredited and meet the specific U.S. News ranking criteria to be included in the Best Colleges rankings. These include many schools that have large online bachelor's degree programs.
 
As a result of the U.S. News eligibility standards to be ranked, almost all of the for-profit institutions have been grouped with the Unranked schools.
 
Why? Their bachelor's degree candidates are largely nontraditional students in degree completion programs, for example, or they don't use SAT or ACT test scores in admissions decisions – both of which are factors U.S. News uses to decide if a school is eligible to be ranked. Since many of the for-profits don't use the SAT or ACT test scores in their undergraduate admissions decisions, they are listed as Unranked.
 
20. How does U.S. News handle schools that refuse to respond to the U.S. News annual statistical survey, given that many of them are still included in the rankings?
 
Nonresponders are still included in the rankings, if they are eligible to be ranked. If they were eligible to be ranked but refused to fill out the U.S. News statistical survey in the spring and summer of 2014, we have made extensive use of the statistical data those institutions were required to report to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. That includes such factors as SAT and ACT scores, acceptance rates, number of faculty and graduation and retention rates. We also use data from other sources, such as data from the Council for Aid to Education (for alumni giving rates) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (for graduation rates).

How to Use the Rankings

1. What is the best way for students and their parents to use the rankings?
 
Students can use the rankings to create an initial list of schools to consider, to narrow down that list and to compare overall academic quality. Students can also use the data underlying the rankings to identify schools with specific characteristics that they value.
 
However, the editors of U.S. News believe rankings are only one of many criteria students should consider in choosing a college. Simply because a school is top in its category does not mean it is the top choice for everyone. The rankings should not be used as the sole basis to choose one school over another. 
 
A prospective student's academic and professional ambitions, personal preferences, financial resources and scholastic record, as well as a school's size, cost, programs, atmosphere and location, should play major roles in determining a college choice.
 
Moreover, it is crucial to remember that schools separated by only a few places in the rankings are extremely close in academic quality.
 
2. How can I find the rank of a particular school?
 
U.S. News publishes the rankings in two places: in a separate college guidebook, "Best Colleges 2015,'' and on this website, which also offers the U.S. News College Compass – home to the most complete rankings and data. The guidebook is available for purchase at newsstands, by calling 1-800-836-6397 or by visiting the U.S. News store. For discounts on bulk orders of 50 or more copies, please contact booksales@usnews.com.
 
If you are using the college guidebook, the only print version of the rankings, the index – where the schools are listed alphabetically – gives page numbers of any table in which a particular school appears. The index also shows the page number for the school's entry in our directory, which is filled with facts about each college and university.
 
Our website has the most complete data and, in some cases, more extended rankings than are published in the guidebook. If you are using our website's college search, simply type in the full name of the school, make sure you spell it correctly and click "Go." The results will take you to our online directory. The website also has additional search and sort features to help customize a college search.
 
If you can't find a particular school, make sure you are looking under the right category. The school may be too small, with enrollment below 200, or too specialized to be ranked – although we do provide data on these institutions in the guidebook and on the Web.
 
Those interested in the most comprehensive data on each school and the most extensive rankings in each category can subscribe to the U.S. News College Compass.
 
3. How can I find out a school's rank from last year or an earlier year?
 
You can look it up in a past issue of the printed guidebook. Bear in mind that changes in a school's rank may reflect changes in other schools' performance or changes in our methods and not just changes in the school's programs.
 
If you do want to track down a back issue – despite this warning – here are the publication dates for all the issues of "Best Colleges/America's Best Colleges" and "Best College Values/Paying for College":

 

Issue Publication Date
2015 Best Colleges 9/23/2014
2014 Best Colleges 9/24/2013
2013 Best Colleges 9/18/2012
2012 Best Colleges 9/20/2011
2011 Best Colleges 8/15/2010
2010 America's Best Colleges 8/20/2009
2009 America's Best Colleges 8/26/2008
2008 America's Best Colleges 8/27/2007
2007 America's Best Colleges 8/28/2006
2006 America's Best Colleges 8/29/2005
2005 America's Best Colleges 8/30/2004
2004 America's Best Colleges 9/01/2003
2003 America's Best Colleges 9/23/2002
2002 America's Best Colleges 9/17/2001
2001 America's Best Colleges 9/11/2000
2000 America's Best Colleges 8/30/1999
1999 America's Best Colleges 8/31/1998
1998 America's Best Colleges 9/01/1997
1997 America's Best Colleges 9/16/1996
1996 America's Best Colleges 9/18/1995
1995 America's Best Colleges 9/26/1994
1994 America's Best Colleges 10/4/1993
1993 America's Best Colleges 9/28/1992
1992 America's Best Colleges 9/30/1991
1991 America's Best Colleges 10/15/1990
1990 America's Best Colleges 10/16/1989
1989 America's Best Colleges 10/10/1988
1988 America's Best Colleges 10/26/1987
1986 The Best Colleges in America 11/25/1985
1984 Rating the Colleges 11/28/1983


Issue Publication Date
2010 Paying for College 9/1/2009
2009 Paying for College 9/15/2008
2008 Paying for College 9/17/2007
2007 Paying for College 9/18/2006
2006 Paying for College 9/05/2005
2005 Paying for College 9/06/2004
2004 Paying for College 9/08/2003
2003 Paying for College 9/30/2002
2002 Best College Values/Paying for College 10/1/2001
2002 Saving for College 7/30/2001
2001 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/18/2000
2000 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/06/1999
1999 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/07/1998
1998 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/08/1997
1997 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/23/1996
1996 Best College Values/Paying for College 9/25/1995
1995 Best College Values/Paying for College 10/3/1994
1994 Best College Values/Paying for College 10/11/1993

 

4. If a school goes up or down in the rankings, does it mean the school is getting better or worse?

Don't jump to this conclusion. Changes in a school's rank may reflect changes in other schools' performance or changes in our methods and not just changes in the school's programs.
 
Our primary objective is to serve students searching for the best school for them. With this goal in mind, we have worked with education experts to refine and evolve our ranking system over time. For instance, our ranking model now puts less emphasis on the qualifications of students entering the school as freshmen, such as average high school class rank.
 
Instead, we now put more emphasis on data that indicate how well each school is educating students once they enroll – such as the percentage of a college's entering class that returns for a second year and its six-year graduation rate. Because of such methodological changes, we suggest that college applicants focus on a school's current rank.
 
5. How can I compare a school in one category with one in a different category?
 
You can't really compare the ranks of schools in different categories, but you can compare schools by the statistical data attributes that are most important to you, such as graduation rates or class size. The exception is the peer assessment score. Peer assessment data are not comparable because we survey different individuals about the schools in each category.
 
You should also consider such things as the size of each school, the degrees the school offers and other things that are important to you.
 
6. How can I compare two schools in the same category but different regions?
 
As in the previous question, look at how schools fare in the attributes that are most important to you.
 
7. Can I find out all of a school's U.S. News rankings in one place?
 
Each school has an "All Rankings" tab on the top of its directory pages that allows you to see all the different categories in which that school is numerically ranked in the Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools and Best Online Programs rankings.
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