Best Colleges Ranking Criteria and Weights

Find out which data are used in our undergraduate rankings and how they are weighted


By Robert Morse and Eric Brooks
September 9, 2015


The 2016 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, published online on Sept. 9, 2015, are based on up to 16 key measures of quality, outlined in the table below. U.S. News uses these measures to capture the various dimensions of academic quality at each college.

The measures fall into seven broad areas: undergraduate academic reputation (including peer assessment, and for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges categories only, high school counselors' ratings); graduation and retention rates; faculty resources (class size, for example); student selectivity (for example, average admissions test scores of incoming students); financial resources; alumni giving; and graduation rate performance.

The indicators include both input measures, which reflect the quality of students, faculty and other resources used in education, and outcome measures, which capture the results of the education an individual receives.

 
Scores for each measure are weighted as shown below to arrive at a final overall score. A more detailed explanation of the ranking indicators and methods follows the table.
 
Ranking Indicator Weights
 
This table shows the relative percentage weights assigned to each of the ranking indicators and subfactors for the variables used in the 2016 Best Colleges rankings of National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges. All weights are unchanged from the 2015 rankings.

Ranking Indicator Indicator Weight Subfactor Subfactor Weight
National Universities
and 
National Liberal Arts Colleges
Regional Universities
and 
Regional Colleges
National Universities
and 
National Liberal Arts Colleges
Regional Universities
and 
Regional Colleges
Undergraduate academic reputation 22.5% 22.5% Peer assessment survey 66.7% 100%
High school counselors' ratings 33.3% 0%
Student selectivity for the fall 2014 entering class 12.5% 12.5% Acceptance rate 10% 10%
High school class standing in top 10% 25% 0%
High school class standing in top 25% 0% 25%
Critical reading and math portions of the SAT and composite ACT scores 65% 65%
Faculty resources for 2014-2015 academic year 20% 20% Faculty compensation 35% 35%
Percent faculty with terminal degree in their field 15% 15%
Percent faculty that is full time 5% 5%
Student-faculty ratio 5% 5%
Class size, 1-19 students 30% 30%
Class size, 50+ students 10% 10%
Graduation and retention rates 22.5% 22.5% Average graduation rate 80% 80%
Average first-year student retention rate 20% 20%
Financial resources 10% 10% Financial resources per student 100% 100%
Alumni giving 5% 5% Average alumni giving rate 100% 100%
Graduation rate performance 7.5% 7.5% Graduation rate performance 100% 100%
Total 100% 100%


Definitions of Ranking Criteria
 
Acceptance rate: The ratio of the number of students admitted to the number of applicants for fall 2014 admission. The acceptance rate is equal to the total number of students admitted divided by the total number of applicants.
 
The totals for both applicants and acceptances include only first-time, first-year students. A lower acceptance rate – indicating a school is more selective in whom it admits – scores higher in the ranking model.
 
Average alumni giving rate: The average percentage of undergraduate alumni of record who donated money to the college or university. Alumni of record are former full- or part-time students who received an undergraduate degree and for whom the college or university has a current address. Graduates who earned only a graduate degree are excluded.
 
Undergraduate alumni donors are alumni with undergraduate degrees from an institution who made one or more gifts for either current operations or capital expenses during the specified academic year.
 
The alumni giving rate is calculated by dividing the number of alumni donors during a given academic year by the number of alumni of record for that same year. The two most recent years of alumni giving rates that are available are averaged and used in the rankings. For the 2016 edition, the two separately calculated alumni giving rates that were averaged (added together and divided by two) were for giving in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 academic years.
 
The percentage of alumni giving serves as a proxy for how satisfied students are with the school. A higher average alumni giving rate scores better than a lower rate in the ranking model .
 
Average first-year student retention rate: The percentage of first-year students who returned to the same college or university the following fall. Average first-year student retention rate indicates the average proportion of the first-year classes entering from fall 2010 through fall 2013 who returned the following fall.
 
If a school submits fewer than four years of first-year retention rate data, then the average is based on the number of years that are submitted by the school to U.S. News. A higher average first-year retention rate scores better than a lower average retention rate in the ranking model.
 
Average graduation rate: The percentage of entering first-year students who graduated within a six-year period or less, averaged over the classes entering from fall 2005 through fall 2008. This excludes students who transferred into the school after their first year and then graduated.
 
If a school submits fewer than four years of graduation rate data, then the average is based on the number of years that are submitted. A higher average graduation rate scores better than a lower graduation rate in the ranking.
 
Class size, 1-19 students: The percentage of undergraduate classes, excluding class subsections, with fewer than 20 students enrolled during fall 2014. A higher percentage of small classes scores higher than a lower percentage in the ranking model. In other words, the more small classes, the better.
 
Class size, 50-plus students: The percentage of undergraduate classes, excluding class subsections, with 50 students or more enrolled during fall 2014. A smaller percentage of large classes scores higher than a larger percentage in the ranking model. In other words, the fewer large classes, the better.
 
Expenditures per student: Financial resources are measured by the average spending per full-time-equivalent student on instruction, research, public service, academic support, student services and institutional support during the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years. If a school submits fewer than two years of data, then one year is used.
 
The number of full-time-equivalent undergraduate and graduate students is equal to the number of full-time students plus one-third the number of part-time students.
 
We first scale the public service and research values by the percentage of full-time-equivalent undergraduate students attending the school. Next, we add total instruction, academic support, student services, institutional support and operations and maintenance (for public institutions only) and then divide by the number of full-time-equivalent students. After calculating this value, we apply a logarithmic transformation to it prior to standardizing. 
 
Financial resources enable schools to provide students with a high-quality college experience. Consequently, higher average expenditures per student score better than lower expenditures in the ranking model. However, the use of the logarithmic transformation means schools that have expenditures per student that are far higher than most other schools' values see diminishing benefits in the ranking calculations. 
 
Faculty compensation: The average faculty pay and benefits are adjusted for regional differences in cost of living. This includes full-time assistant, associate and full professors. The values are taken for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic years and then averaged.
 
If a school submits fewer than two years of faculty salary data, then only one year is used. The regional differences in cost of living are taken from indexes from Runzheimer International.
 
Higher average faculty salaries after adjusting for regional cost of living score better than lower average faculty salaries in the ranking model.
 
Faculty with a Ph.D. or terminal degree: The percentage of full-time faculty members with a doctorate or the highest degree possible in their field or specialty during the 2014-2015 academic year. Schools with a larger proportion of full-time faculty with the terminal degree in their field score better than schools with a lower proportion.
 
Graduation rate performance: The difference between the actual six-year graduation rate for students entering in fall 2008 and the predicted graduation rate. The predicted graduation rate is based upon characteristics of the entering class, as well as characteristics of the institution.
 
This indicator of added value shows the effect of the college's programs and policies on the six-year graduation rate of students after controlling for spending per student, the proportion of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, standardized test scores and high school class standing. 
 
If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement or is overperforming. If its actual graduation rate is lower than the predicted rate, then it's underperforming.
 
A school with a higher ratio of its actual graduation rate compared with its U.S. News predicted graduation rate (actual graduation rate divided by predicted rate) scores better than a school with a lower ratio in the ranking model.
 
Graduation rate performance has been used in the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking categories since the 1997 edition of Best Colleges, and in the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges ranking categories starting with the 2014 edition.
 
High school class standing: The proportion of students enrolled for the academic year beginning in fall 2014 who graduated in the top 10 percent (for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges) or 25 percent (Regional Universities and Regional Colleges) of their high school class.
 
A higher proportion of students from either the top 10 percent or top 25 percent of their high school class scores better than lower proportions in the ranking model. Colleges reporting high school class standing based on less than 20 percent of their entering classes had their scores discounted before standardization.
 
High school counselor rating score: Opinions of high school guidance counselors are only factored into the rankings of National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges. These ratings by public and private independent school counselors are used as an indicator of academic reputation in these two categories, along with separate ratings from college admissions deans, provosts and presidents.

 
Scores for each school are totaled and divided by the number of counselors who rated that school.
 
This year, for the first time, the three most recent years of survey results, from spring 2013, spring 2014 and spring 2015, were averaged to compute the high school counselor reputation score that is used in the rankings. This was done to increase the number of ratings each school received and more fully represent the views of guidance counselors, as well as to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average counselor score. Previously, the two most recent years of data were used.
 
The counselors' one-year response rate was 7 percent for the spring 2015 surveys. A higher average high school counselor reputation score does better than a lower score in the ranking model. The Regional Colleges and Regional Universities rankings do not have a high school counselor ratings component.
 
Peer assessment: A measure of how a school is regarded by administrators at peer institutions. A school's peer assessment score is determined by surveying presidents, provosts and deans of admissions, or officials in equivalent positions, at institutions in the school's ranking category.
 
Each individual is asked to rate peer schools' undergraduate academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those individuals who do not know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark "don't know."
 
A school's score is the average score of all the respondents who rated it. Responses of "don't know" count neither for nor against a school.
 
This year, for the first time, the two most recent years of peer assessment survey results, from spring 2014 and spring 2015, were averaged to compute the academic reputation peer assessment score that is used in the rankings. This was done to increase the number of ratings each school received and more fully represent the views of high-level academics, as well as to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average peer assessment score. Previously, only the most recent year's data were used. 
In spring 2015, 40 percent of those surveyed responded. The response rate was 42 percent for the 2014 survey.
 
A higher average peer assessment score does better than a lower peer assessment score in the ranking model. The academic peer assessment rating is used in the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges rankings.
 
Proportion of full-time faculty: The proportion of the 2014-2015 full-time-equivalent faculty that is full time. The number of full-time-equivalent faculty members is equal to the number of full-time faculty members plus one-third of the number of part-time faculty members.
 
We do not include faculty in preclinical and clinical medicine; administrative officers with titles such as dean of students, librarian, registrar or coach, even though they may devote part of their time to classroom instruction and may have faculty status; undergraduate or graduate students who are teaching assistants or teaching fellows; faculty members on leave without pay; or replacement faculty for those faculty members on sabbatical leave.
 
To calculate this percentage, the total full-time faculty is divided by the full-time-equivalent faculty. A higher proportion of faculty members who are full-time scores better than a lower proportion in the ranking model. 
 
SAT/ACT scores: Average test scores on both the critical reading and math portions of the SAT and composite ACT of all enrolled first-time, first-year students entering in fall 2014 are combined for the ranking model.
 
Before being used as a ranking indicator, the scores from both tests are converted to the percentile of the national distribution corresponding to that school's scores on the critical reading and math portions of the SAT and the composite ACT. The SAT writing section is not used in the ranking model.
 
To better represent the entire entering class, we use a calculation that combines the values of both the critical reading and math portions of the SAT and the composite ACT of all fall-entering students based on the percentage of the fall entering class that submitted each test. If less than 75 percent of the fall 2014 entering class submitted SAT and ACT scores, their test scores were discounted in the ranking calculations. This policy was also used in the 2015 edition.
 
A higher average entering class test score on the critical reading and math portions of the SAT and composite ACT does better than a lower average SAT and ACT test score in the ranking model. 
 
Student-faculty ratio: This is the ratio of full-time-equivalent students to full-time-equivalent faculty members during the fall of 2014.
 
This excludes faculty and students of law, medical, business and other stand-alone graduate or professional programs in which faculty members teach virtually only graduate-level students. Faculty numbers also exclude graduate or undergraduate students who are teaching assistants.
 
A lower student-faculty ratio (fewer students per each faculty member) scores better than a higher ratio in the ranking model.
 

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