How U.S. News Calculated the 2014 Best Colleges Rankings

Here’s how you can make the most of the key college statistics.

Use the Best Colleges rankings along with your intuition and personal preferences to help choose the best school for you.
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For their views on National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges, we also surveyed 2,202 counselors at public high schools, each of which is a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in the U.S. News rankings of Best High Schools, published in April 2013, and 400 college counselors at the largest independent schools. The counselors represent nearly every state and the District of Columbia. 

Each person surveyed was asked to rate schools' academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who didn't know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly were asked to mark "don't know." 

The score used in the rankings is the average score of those who rated the school on the 5-point scale; "don't knows" are not counted as part of the average. In the case of National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges, the academic peer assessment accounts for 15 percentage points of the weighting, and 7.5 percentage points go to the counselors' ratings. 

For the second year in row, the two most recent years' 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 college received from the high school counselors 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. Both the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges rankings continue to rely on one assessment score, by the academic peer group. 

In order to reduce the impact of strategic voting by respondents, we eliminated the two highest and two lowest scores each school received before calculating the average score. Ipsos Public Affairs collected the data in spring 2013; of the 4,554 academics who were sent questionnaires, 42 percent responded. The counselors' one-year response rate was 11 percent for the spring 2013 surveys. 

Retention (22.5 percent): The higher the proportion of freshmen who return to campus for sophomore year and eventually graduate, the better a school is apt to be at offering the classes and services that students need to succeed. 

This measure has two components: six-year graduation rate (80 percent of the retention score) and freshman retention rate (20 percent). The graduation rate indicates the average proportion of a graduating class earning a degree in six years or less; we consider freshman classes that started from fall 2003 through fall 2006. Freshman retention indicates the average proportion of freshmen who entered the school in the fall of 2008 through fall 2011 and returned the following fall. 

Faculty resources (20 percent): Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely they are to graduate. We use six factors from the 2012-2013 academic year to assess a school's commitment to instruction. 

Class size has two components: the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30 percent of the faculty resources score) and the proportion with 50 or more students (10 percent of the score). 

Faculty salary (35 percent) is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International. We also weigh the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent) and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent). 

Student selectivity (12.5 percent): A school's academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the students. 

We use three components: We factor in the admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the Critical Reading and Math portions of the SAT and the Composite ACT score (65 percent of the selectivity score); the proportion of enrolled freshmen at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes or in the top quarter at Regional Universities and Regional Colleges (25 percent); and the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent).