The 2013 edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings of colleges and universities provides an ideal starting point for families comparing colleges because it offers an opportunity to judge the relative quality of the educational experience at schools according to widely accepted indicators of excellence.
Many other factors, including some that can't be measured, should figure in your decision—such as the school's cost, the availability of financial aid, course offerings, activities, the feel of campus life, and the setting and geographic location. College visits, if possible, can prove invaluable, too.
How should you use our various ranking tables and lists that are on usnews.com? Study the data that accompany the actual rankings. The rankings should not be used as the sole basis to decide to go to one school over another school, but they are a source of useful information about colleges that is otherwise hard to obtain and will help you narrow your search to a small number of colleges that are a good fit. The rankings should be used as just one tool in the college search process.
For instance, high school students can scan colleges' student SAT or ACT scores to infer whether they could gain admission to a college—and even rise to the top of the applicant pool and possibly qualify for a merit-based scholarship. They can use our class-size data to get a sense of the intimacy of colleges' classes.
They can check faculty-student ratios and class-size data to see how much attention they are likely to receive from professors at different schools or check the freshman retention rates to learn how hard schools work to keep students from dropping out.
They can study other lists to see how the public schools stack up against one another, to compare specialty schools, or to see how we rate campuses in terms of diversity or best value for the dollar. And students can look up any of 1,800 four-year schools in our directory to get information on schools' location, size, cost, academic offerings, and financial aid policies.
While scanning our lists to find colleges that feel right, students and parents may find many names that they had not considered—or even heard of. There are hundreds of fine colleges and universities, and ultimately the challenge is to narrow the list to a few that you'd really like to attend. The articles and rankings on this site will give you the names of some of those schools and help you think more about which colleges make the most sense for you. Good luck.