Best Colleges Ranking Criteria and Weights

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

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The 2014 edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, published online on Sept. 10, 2013, is based on up to 16 key measures of quality, described below. U.S. News uses these measures to capture the various dimensions of academic quality at each college.

The measures fall into seven broad categories: 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 appears further below.

Ranking Category Weights

The table below shows the relative percentage weights assigned to each ranking category and subfactor for the variables used in the 2014 edition of the Best Colleges rankings: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges.

Ranking Category Category 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 fall 2012 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 the composite ACT scores 65% 65%
Faculty resources for 2012-2013 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 freshman 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% 100% 100%

Definitions of Ranking Criteria

Acceptance rate: The ratio of the number of students admitted to the number of applicants for fall 2012 admission. The acceptance rate is equal to the total number of students admitted divided by the total number of applicants.

Both the applications and acceptances counted only first-time, first-year students. A lower acceptance rate when a school is harder to get into scores higher in the ranking model and a higher acceptance rate when a school is easier to get into scores lower 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. These two separate alumni giving rates were then averaged for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 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 percentage scores better in the ranking model than a lower average alumni giving rate.

Average freshman retention rate: The percentage of first-year freshmen who returned to the same college or university the following fall. Average freshman retention rate indicates the average proportion of the first-year classes entering from fall 2008 through fall 2011 who returned the following fall.

If a school submits fewer than four years of freshman 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 freshman retention rate scores better in the ranking model than a lower average retention rate.

Average graduation rate: The percentage of entering freshmen who graduated within a six-year period or less, averaged over the classes entering from fall 2003 through fall 2006. (Note: This excludes students who transferred into the school 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 in the ranking model than a lower graduation rate.

Class size, 1-19 students: The percentage of undergraduate classes, excluding class subsections, with fewer than 20 students enrolled during fall 2012. A larger percentage of small classes scores higher in the ranking model than a lower percentage of small classes. 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 2012. A smaller percentage of large classes scores higher in the ranking model than a larger percentage of large classes. 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 2011 and 2012 fiscal years.

The number of full-time-equivalent students is equal to the number of full-time students plus one-third of the number of part-time students. (Note: This includes both undergraduate and graduate students.) 

We first scaled the public service and research values by the percentage of full-time-equivalent undergraduate students attending the school. Next, we added in total instruction, academic support, student services, institutional support and operations and maintenance (for public institutions only) and then divided by the number of full-time-equivalent students. 

After calculating this value, we applied a logarithmic transformation to the spending per full-time-equivalent student, prior to standardizing the value. This calculation process was done for all schools. 

If a school submits fewer than two years of expenditures per student, then the average is based on the one year that is submitted. 

Higher average expenditures per student score better in the ranking model than lower average expenditures per student. In other words, financial resources do matter in terms of being able to provide students with a high-quality college experience. 

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 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 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. 

If a school submits fewer than two years of faculty salary data, then the average is based on the one year that is submitted. Higher average faculty salaries after adjusting for regional cost of living score better in the ranking model than lower average faculty salaries. 

Faculty with Ph.D.s 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 2012-2013 academic year. A larger proportion of full-time faculty with the terminal degree in their field scores better in the ranking model than schools with a lower proportion.

Graduation rate performance: The difference between the actual six-year graduation rate for students entering in fall 2006 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 graduation rate of students after controlling for spending and student characteristics such as test scores and the proportion receiving Pell Grants. 

If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement or is overperforming. If its actual graduation 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 in the ranking model than a school with a lower ratio of its actual graduation rate compared with its U.S. News predicted graduation rate. 

For the first time, in the 2014 edition of the Best Colleges rankings, this measure is included for all the ranking categories. Since 1997, graduation rate performance had been used only in the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking categories. 

High school class standing: The proportion of students enrolled for the academic year beginning in fall 2012 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 in the ranking model than lower proportions from either the top 10 percent or top 25 percent. 

High school counselor rating score: For the fourth consecutive year, U.S. News counts guidance counselor opinions in ranking the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges; these ratings by public and private independent school counselors are used as a separate indicator of academic reputation for these two categories, in addition to the ratings by college admissions deans, provosts and presidents. 

The rating by high school guidance counselors is weighted 7.5 percent. The separate peer assessment rating factor of academic reputation by college admissions deans, provosts and presidents is weighted 15 percent in the rankings. Both sets of weights are unchanged from the 2013 Best Colleges rankings for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges ranking categories. 

Scores for each school were totaled and divided by the number of counselors who rated that school, and then they were ranked in descending order based on the average high school counselor reputation score. Schools receiving the same rank and average reputation score are tied.

This year, for the second year in a row, the two most recent years of survey results from spring 2012 and spring 2013 were averaged to compute the high school counselor reputation score. This was done to increase the number of ratings each school received and to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average counselor score. 

The academic peer assessment score continues to be based only on the most recent year's results. The Regional Colleges and Regional Universities rankings rely on one assessment, by the academic peer group. 

The counselors' one-year response rate was 11 percent for the spring 2013 surveys. A higher average high school counselor reputation score does better in the ranking model than a lower high school counselor reputation score. 

[See more on the high school counselor scores in the 2014 rankings.] 

Peer assessment: This is used to measure how the school is regarded by administrators at peer institutions. A school's peer assessment score is determined by surveying the presidents, provosts and deans of admissions, or equivalent positions, at institutions in the school's category. 

Each individual was asked to rate peer schools' undergraduate academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those individuals who did not know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly were 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" counted neither for nor against a school. 

The survey was conducted in spring 2013, and 42 percent of those surveyed responded. 

A higher average peer assessment score does better in the ranking model than a lower peer assessment score. The academic peer assessment ranking is used in the National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges rankings. 

Proportion of full-time faculty: This is the proportion of the 2012-2013 full-time-equivalent faculty that is full time. The number of full-time-equivalent faculty is equal to the number of full-time faculty plus one-third of the number of part-time faculty. 

Note: 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 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 (full-time equivalent faculty is full-time faculty plus one-third of part-time faculty). A higher proportion of faculty who are full time scores better in the ranking model than a lower proportion. 

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 2012 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 of the SAT was not used in the ranking model. 

For the fifth consecutive year, in order to better represent the entire entering class, we used 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. 

A higher average entering class test score on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT and Composite ACT scores better in the ranking model than does lower average SAT and ACT test score. 

Student-faculty ratio: This is the ratio of full-time-equivalent students to full-time-equivalent faculty during the fall of 2012, as reported by the school. 

Note: This excludes faculty and students of law, medical, business and other stand-alone graduate or professional programs in which faculty 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 higher in the ranking model than a higher ratio (more students per each faculty member). 

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