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).
The data are all for the fall 2012 entering class. While the ranking calculation takes account of both the SAT and ACT scores of all entering students, the table displays the score range for whichever test was taken by most students.
Financial resources (10 percent): Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services. U.S. News measures financial resources by using the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms and hospitals doesn't count.
Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent): 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. We measure the difference between a school's six-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2006 and the rate we predicted for the class.
If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement.
Alumni giving rate (5 percent): This reflects the average percentage of living alumni with bachelor's degrees who gave to their school during 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, an indirect measure of student satisfaction.
To arrive at a school's rank, we first calculated the weighted sum of its scores. The final scores were rescaled so that the top school in each category received a value of 100, and the other schools' weighted scores were calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores were rounded to the nearest whole number and ranked in descending order. Schools that are tied appear in alphabetical order.
Check out usnews.com over the coming year, since we may add content to the Best Colleges pages as we obtain additional information. And as you mine these tables for insights – where your SAT or ACT scores might win you some merit aid, for example, or where you will be apt to get the most attention from professors – keep in mind that they provide a launching pad, not an easy answer.