Why U.S. News Ranks the Best Colleges and Universities

Investment in a college education may profoundly affect your job opportunities and quality of life.

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Why does U.S. News rank colleges and universities? It's a controversial question with a simple answer: We do it to help you make one of the most important decisions of your life.

Your investment in a college education could profoundly affect your career opportunities, financial well-being and quality of life.

See this "Education and Training Pay" chart, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (as analyzed by Thomas Mortenson in the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity) to show average family income in 2011 for many types of households that have attained different education levels, as well as unemployment rates in 2012 by level of educational attainment.

It starts with those in which the family member with the highest level of education has less than a high school degree and goes up to those households where the family member with the highest degree has a professional degree in such fields as medicine or law or even a doctorate.

These figures dramatically show the value in today's world of earning a college degree or going for a graduate degree. Those with a college degree had almost twice as much income as those with just a high school diploma. The income disparity is even greater when you compare earnings of those with master's, doctorate or professional degrees to those with just a high school diploma or who were high school dropouts.

It is true that the current job market is tough for new college grads, but in the long run, a college degree has proven to pay big financial dividends. Choosing the right college is the first step in getting that degree.

To find the right college, you need a source of reliable and consistent data – information that lets you compare one college with another and find the differences that matter to you. That's what we do with our rankings.

We rank for best quality, and we rank for best value as well. You wouldn't go out and buy a computer, cellphone or a car without making sure it was the best you could afford given your budget. The same rule should apply in choosing a college – especially at a time when four years at some private U.S. universities can cost you more than $240,000 in tuition, room, board, required fees, books and other personal expenses such as late-night study snacks and transportation.

Most people choose a college only once in their lifetime, so there's not much opportunity to learn from your past mistakes. Instead, you need first-rate information from the start. The 2014 edition of Best Colleges, in print and online, can help you by making it easier for you to sift through data from nearly 1,800 colleges and universities.

Here's how:

Do use the rankings as one tool to select and compare schools.

Don't rely solely on rankings to choose a college.

Do use the search and sort capabilities of this site to learn more about schools. Visit schools, if possible.

Don't wait until the last minute. College matters. Take your time, and choose carefully.

Do think long and hard about the right place for you.

As in the past, U.S. News recommends that readers think of the rankings as one tool for selecting a college. We recognize that prospective students must consider their academic and professional goals, financial resources, scholastic record and special needs when choosing a school.

And we recommend that students gather information on colleges in a number of ways – by talking to parents, high school guidance counselors and other advisers; from college catalogs, view books and websites; and from campus visits to form firsthand impressions.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.