The host of intangibles that make up the college experience can't be measured by a series of data points. But for families concerned with finding the best academic value for their money, the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings provide an excellent starting point for the search.
They allow you to compare at a glance the relative quality of institutions based on such widely accepted indicators of excellence as freshman retention and graduation rates and the strength of the faculty. And as you check out the data for colleges already on your short list, you may discover unfamiliar schools with similar metrics, and thus broaden your options.
Many factors other than those spotlighted here will figure in your decision, including location and the feel of campus life; the range of academic offerings, activities and sports; and cost and the availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information on usnews.com with college visits, interviews and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for the right college.
How the Methodology Works
The U.S. News ranking system rests on two pillars. The formula uses quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it's based on our researched view of what matters in education.
First, schools are categorized by their mission, which is derived from the breakdown of types of higher education institutions as refined by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2010. The Carnegie classification has been the basis of the Best Colleges ranking category system since our first rankings were published in 1983, given that it is used extensively as the accepted standard by higher education researchers.
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, for example. The category names we use are our own – National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities and Regional Colleges – but their definitions rely on the Carnegie principles.
National Universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master's and Ph.D. programs, and emphasize faculty research. National Liberal Arts Colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education. They award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the arts and sciences.
Regional Universities offer a broad scope of undergraduate degrees and some master's degree programs but few, if any, doctoral programs. Regional Colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines; this category also includes schools that have small bachelor's degree programs but primarily grant two-year associate degrees.
Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are further divided and ranked in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.
Next, we gather data from each college on up to 16 indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is assigned a weight that reflects our judgment about how much a measure matters. Finally, the colleges and universities in each category are ranked against their peers, based on their composite weighted score.
U.S. News made significant changes this year to the Best Colleges ranking methodology to reduce the weight of input factors and increase the weight of output measures. See section further below for more details on each of the ranking model indicators.