The 2012 Best Colleges rankings go live on September 13. To ensure the integrity of the rankings and the data that we publish, U.S. News follows a five-step process.
Step 1: On our surveys, U.S. News uses standardized and accepted definitions of the college data that have been carefully developed by experts in higher education to achieve data reporting comparability among schools.
As in previous years, the questions used in the statistical questionnaires sent to colleges in the spring and early summer of 2011 either follow the standardized format used in the Common Data Set or conform to definitions used by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics or other higher-education organizations. A small part of the survey data is used to calculate the rankings, and the majority of the remaining data is published on our site.
Step 2: After each school submits its statistical data online via a password-protected U.S. News website, we analyze the data for factual errors and inconsistencies with other information on that school's survey. In addition, we check to see whether any large changes had occurred from what the school had reported to us in the prior year.
We do this by sending each school a "data assessment" report that flags potential errors or problems with its data. If schools have errors or big changes in their data, they have to explain or sign off on those big changes or correct the errors before U.S. News will use their information in the ranking calculations or publishes it.
Step 3: After each school clears up all possible problems, they are sent a final "data verification" report. Each college is asked to do a final check; an official at the school must sign a verification form indicating that the data submitted are accurate according to the definitions and are ready for U.S. News to use.
Step 4: We also cross-check rankings data that the schools submitted to U.S. News with data from other official sources where the school had reported that same information.
Faculty salaries are cross-checked with data from the American Association of University Professors; six-year graduation rates are compared with data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics; and admissions, tuition, financial aid, and financial resources data is checked against information from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In cases of a mismatch between the data a school submits to us and another official source, we will use the data from the official source and footnote the difference. We also obtained annual alumni-giving data from the Council for Aid to Education and used it in the rankings, if schools failed to report alumni giving.
Step 5: As the final but highly important last step, in mid-summer as we begin to conduct the data analysis and number crunching to produce the new Best Colleges rankings, we do many preliminary runs of the data calculations. This lets us carefully analyze which schools' overall rankings had changed significantly (up or down) from the previous year, figure out why those big changes occurred, and make sure it wasn't because there was a mistake in the data.
After these steps are complete, we are ready to publish the rankings.
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