U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings Turn 30 Years Old

The college rankings have evolved over the years to better serve prospective students and parents.

By + More
The Best Colleges rankings, which debuted in November 1983, provide students with a tool to compare colleges.

The first U.S. News Best Colleges rankings were published 30 years ago on Nov. 28, 1983. No one involved in those early years imagined the rankings would evolve into what they are today in the world of American higher education.

The Best Colleges rankings have become the subject of Ph.D. dissertations, academic papers, higher education conference sessions, endless debate and constant media coverage.

U.S. News was not the first to do academic rankings, but we have played a leading role in popularizing them for the mass market both in the U.S. and globally. The Best Colleges rankings have been one of the leading catalysts of national college rankings in dozens of countries.

There was a big information void in the United States in 1983 when U.S. News first ventured into publishing the Best Colleges rankings. Initially, the rankings were released every other year. Starting in 1987, U.S. News published them annually.

U.S. News started the rankings for the same reason we do them today: to help prospective students and their parents make both qualitative and quantitative comparisons of colleges.

A college education is one of the most important and costliest investments that people ever make. The rankings provide one tool to help make that choice. This is even more relevant today than it was 30 years ago, given that some privates U.S. colleges now cost upward of $240,000 for a bachelor's degree.

Over the years, U.S. News has modified the ranking methodology formula to reflect changes in the world of higher education. We maintain high survey and data standards and have been transparent, making it clear that we are not doing social science peer review research.

U.S. News has always said that the rankings are evolving and not perfect. Over time, we have shifted the weights for inputs related to the quality of students and resources toward outputs that focus on schools' success in graduating students.

We operate under this guiding principle: The methodology is only altered if a change will better help our readers compare schools as they're making decisions about where to apply and enroll.

For example, starting with the 2010 rankings, we factored in both the SAT and ACT test scores of all entering students in the calculation of the test score indicator in order to better represent the profile of the entire entering class. Previously, we used only the scores of the test that the majority of students took. This change gave users of the rankings the most comprehensive view of a school's complete entering class.

U.S. News has stood by its guiding principle in the face of the inevitable and ongoing criticisms from academia about our rankings, the methodology and their growing influence. One main critique remains: that it is impossible to reduce everything that a college has to offer to one numerical rank.

The critics have in fact helped improve the rankings. U.S. News meets with our academic critics on an ongoing basis and listens to their points of view. We debate them on the merits of what we do and make appropriate changes.

U.S. News is aware that the higher education community also uses our rankings. We understand how seriously academics, college presidents, top administrators, trustees and governing boards study and analyze our rankings and data. They use them in various ways, including benchmarking against peers, alumni fundraising and advertising to attract students.

U.S. News firmly believes that the rankings are here to stay, and understands that the controversy surrounding them will continue. However, our main audience – both in the U.S. and globally – will remain the consumer: prospective students and their parents.