The new America's Best Colleges 2008 edition rankings go live on August 17. What does U.S. News do to ensure the integrity of the data that we publish in the rankings?
We have a five-step process:
First step: U.S. News uses definitions developed by experts in higher education. As in the past, the ranking data questions contained in the statistical questionnaires we send out each year either follow the standardized format in the Common Data Set or follow definitions used by the federal government or other higher-education organizations. Because schools are using the agreed-upon definitions to report their data, the data will be comparable across different institutions.
Second step: After each school submits statistical data to U.S. News, we assess the information for errors, inconsistencies with other data on its survey, and big changes that have occurred from what the school reported to us the prior year. We send each school a "Data Assessment" report on its information that flags possible errors or problems. If schools have big changes in their data, they must sign off on these changes or correct them before U.S. News will use their data.
Third Step: After a school clears up any possible problems, we send a final "Data Verification" and ask for another check of all the information and for an official at each school to sign a form that says the data are accurate and ready for use.
Fourth Step: We also cross-check data that the schools have submitted to U.S. News with other official sources. Faculty salaries are cross-checked with the American Association of University Professors, six-year graduation rates with the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, and admission, tuition, financial aid, and financial resources data with the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. In cases where there's a mismatch between the data a school submits to us and another source, we will use the data from the official sources instead of what we received and footnote the difference.
Fifth Step: As a final but very important last step, when we calculate the rankings, we do many preliminary runs of the data. This lets us check which schools' rankings have changed significantly from the previous year, figure out why, and make sure it wasn't because there was a mistake in the data.