Methodology: Best Colleges Ranking Category Definitions

Understand how U.S. News differentiate colleges and universities for the rankings.

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U.S. News ranks universities and colleges in three steps. 

First, to sort colleges and universities into appropriate categories for comparisons, this 2012 edition of Best Colleges uses the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education 2010 revisions to its highly respected Basic Classification.

The 2010 update was the first major category revision by Carnegie since 2006; that update was reflected in the 2008 Best Colleges rankings. As a result of this revision, many colleges have switched ranking categories (from National Liberal Arts to Regional Colleges or National Universities to Regional Universities, for example) and some schools have been added to the rankings for the first time. The category changes are the main explanation for the biggest movements in this year's rankings. 

The Carnegie classification has been the basis of the Best Colleges sorting system since our first ranking was published in 1983, given that it is used extensively as the basis for classifying schools by higher education researchers. For example, the U.S. Department of Education and many higher education associations use the system to organize their data and to determine colleges' eligibility for grant money. In short, the Carnegie categories are the accepted standard in higher education. 

U.S. News collapses 12 of those Carnegie categories into four main groupings: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges. The schools in the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges and categories are placed into one of four geographic regions: North, South, Midwest, and West.

For the first time, U.S. News has included in the rankings all for-profit colleges and universities that grant bachelor's degrees and are regionally accredited. These include many schools that have large online bachelor's degree programs. Many of these schools ended up as being unranked since they did not meet the ranking criteria. 

Second, data on up to 16 indicators of academic quality are gathered from each school and tabulated. 

Finally, colleges are ranked in their category by their total weighted score. 

National Universities: There are 280 national universities in the country (172 public, 101 private, and 7 are for-profits), based on categories developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, as well as master's and doctoral degrees; many strongly emphasize research, defined by the Carnegie Foundation as Research Universities (very high research activity), Research Universities (high research activity), and Doctoral/Research Universities. 

National Liberal Arts Colleges: The 251 national liberal arts colleges emphasize undergraduate education and award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts (defined by the Carnegie Foundation as baccalaureate colleges-arts and sciences). 

Regional Universities: Like the national universities, regional universities (as defined by the Carnegie Foundation as universities-master's larger, medium and smaller programs) provide a full range of undergraduate programs and some master's level programs. They offer few, if any, doctoral programs. The 626 total regional universities are ranked within four geographic areas: North, South, Midwest, and West

Regional Colleges: These institutions (defined by the Carnegie Foundation as Baccalaureate Colleges-Diverse; Baccalaureate/Associate Colleges; Associate's—Public 4-year, Primarily Associate's; Associate's-Private Not-for-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate's; and Associate's—Private For-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate's) focus primarily on undergraduate education, just as the liberal arts colleges do, but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. At these schools, at least 10 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor's degrees. There are a total of 370 regional colleges, ranked within four regions: North, South, Midwest, and West

Specialty Schools: Looking for a school that specializes in textile arts or instrumental music? Colleges and universities that offer most or all of their degrees in fine arts, performing arts, business, and engineering are listed in this category. None of these schools are ranked, but pertinent data for each school are provided. There are a total of 81 specialty colleges. 

Specialty Rankings: U.S. News does rank certain undergraduate program areas. Undergraduate business and undergraduate engineering programs were ranked based solely on a peer assessment survey sent in the spring of 2011. To appear on the undergraduate business survey, a school must have an undergraduate business program accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. To appear on an undergraduate engineering survey, a school must have an undergraduate engineering program accredited by the ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. 

Accredited undergraduate engineering programs were then split into two groups: those schools whose highest engineering degree offered at the engineering school is a doctoral and those engineering schools whose highest engineering degree offered is a bachelor's or master's. Those schools that offer a doctoral degree in engineering tend to have more of a focus on and opportunities for research. Schools whose highest engineering degree is a bachelor's or master's tend to be more focused on undergraduate education. 

U.S. News categories: The 1,608 regionally accredited schools were divided into categories based on the Basic classifications established in 2010 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This chart below can be used to determine if a school falls in a certain Carnegie Classification's Basic Classification, then how that Carnegie Basic Classification maps into the U.S. News categories used in the 2012 edition of the Best Colleges rankings: 

Carnegie category U.S. News category
Research Universities (very high research activity), Research Universities (high research activity), and Doctoral/Research Universities National Universities
Master's Colleges and Universities (larger programs), Master's Colleges and Universities (medium programs), and Master's Colleges and Universities (smaller programs) Regional Universities: North, South, Midwest, and West
Baccalaureate Colleges-Arts and Sciences National Liberal Arts Colleges
Baccalaureate Colleges-Diverse; Baccalaureate/Associate Colleges; Associate's–Public 4-year, Primarily Associate's; Associate's–Private Not-for-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate's; and Associate's–Private For-profit 4-year, Primarily Associate's Regional Colleges: North, South, Midwest, and West
Category Total Number of Schools Total Number of Private Schools Total Number of Public Schools Total Number of Proprietary Schools Number in Category That Were Unranked
         
1. National Liberal Arts Colleges 251 224 27 0 16
2. National Universities 280 101 172 7 12
3. Regional Universities–South 134 60 72 2 7
4. Regional Universities–North 193 121 70 2 10
5. Regional Universities–West 140 71 65 4 20
6. Regional Universities–Midwest 159 98 56 5 13
7. Regional Colleges–South 120 86 29 5 21
8. Regional Colleges–North 74 47 21 6 12
9. Regional Colleges–West 67 37 28 2 28
10. Regional Colleges–Midwest 109 89 17 3 12
11. Art 59 43 2 14 59
12. Business 15 11 0 4 15
13. Engineering 7 5 2 0 7
Total 1608 993 561 54 232
Regional Universities (total) 626 350 263 13 50
Regional Colleges (total) 370 259 95 16 73
Ranked Undergraduate Business and Engineering Institutions Number of Schools
Undergraduate Business Programs 455
Undergraduate Engineering Programs at schools whose highest degree in engineering is a Ph.D. 180
Undergraduate Engineering Programs at schools whose highest degree in engineering is a bachelor's or master's 190

Corrected on : Corrected 7/19/12: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of national universities and liberal arts colleges.