How Important Are U.S. News Best Rankings?

U.S. News & World Report released its first list of annual college rankings in 1983. Since then, prospective students (and their parents) have used the rankings as a guide for where to consider going to school. While the rankings can be a valuable tool, they’re also quite controversial in that they tend to favor prestigious schools where the student populations largely come from white, affluent families.

Critics of the U.S. News rankings often point out that much of the data used to compile the rankings is provided by “experts” who range from high school guidance counselors to admissions counselors and faculty members at various higher ed institutions. The problem? Many of these experts are scoring institutions without knowing much about them, making their opinions — and the scores — difficult to take seriously. The rankings also receive criticism for weighing factors such as reputation more heavily than social mobility, for example.

Despite this, the rankings can still make a difference in college enrollment levels, leading many institutions to seek recognition from U.S. News in the hopes of generating more interest from prospective students.

Value of U.S. News Annual Rankings for Colleges

The 2021 list of Best Colleges marks the 36th year of ranking colleges for U.S. News. The outlet explains that it assessed 1,452 U.S. bachelor’s degree-granting institutions on 17 measures of academic quality. A good ranking on the Best Colleges list means greater exposure to prospective students and their parents, which can help increase application and enrollment rates.

Group Ranking Categories

U.S. News groups schools by academic mission into 10 ranking categories, as listed below. Within each category, it calculates the sum of weighted, normalized values across 17 indicators of academic quality to determine each school’s overall score and, ultimately, ranking:

U.S. News utilized the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s Basic Classification system to map its categories.

Top-Ranked Schools

Not surprisingly, prestigious schools maintained their positions among the top rankings for 2021. Critics of U.S. News’ annual rankings say the outlet rewards prestige and wealth, according to Inside Higher Ed. For example, here are the top-ranked institutions in each category:

  • National Universities: Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia
  • National Liberal Arts Universities: Williams, Amherst, and Swarthmore
  • Regional Universities: Bentley University (North), Rollins College (South), Butler University (Midwest), and Trinity University (West)
  • Regional Colleges: United States Coast Guard Academy (North), High Point University (South), Cottey College (Midwest), and Carroll College (West)

Many of these institutions have a strong reputation regardless of their U.S. News rankings, but the recognition they receive from the outlet certainly doesn’t hurt when prospective students are seeking admission to the “best” institutions. That being said, critics complain that institutions attended by predominantly wealthy and high-achieving students are naturally going to have high post-college success rates. In the past, U.S. News gave little consideration to institutions’ work toward accessibility and equity by enrolling students who are less likely to succeed based on socioeconomic background.

Methodology Overview

Though it has been ranking colleges and universities for 36 years, U.S. News states that it is always refining the process based on user feedback, discussions with higher ed institutions, literature reviews, trends in their own data, and other factors. Part of the outlet’s methodology includes using only thoroughly vetted academic data, which is why it does not give weight to aspects of student life such as athletics and social life.

On its website, U.S. News indicates that COVID-19 did not impact its 2021 rankings because the data pertains to fall 2019 and earlier. However, the outlet reintroduced test-blind schools into the rankings and reduced emphasis on admissions and alumni-giving data due to the disruption of COVID-19 in higher ed. Also new this year, the rankings give less weight to SAT/ACT scores.

U.S. News recently added “social mobility” as a factor in its rankings, which assesses institutions’ efforts to help students from disadvantaged families move into the middle class through the opportunities that often accompany a college education. While the new addition is helping some institutions with diverse student populations climb up the lower levels of the rankings, Ivy League universities still dominate the top positions because of the weight that the other factors receive.

The U.S. News Ranking Factors

U.S. News reports using multiple measures to capture the various dimensions of quality at each institution it ranks. These measures fall into nine broad areas:

  1. Graduation and retention
  2. Expert opinion
  3. Faculty resources
  4. Financial resources
  5. Graduation rate performance
  6. Student excellence
  7. Social mobility
  8. Alumni giving 
  9. Graduation indebtedness

Indicators include input measures, which assess the quality of students, faculty, and other resources in education, and output measures, which look at the results of the education students receive.

Ranking Variables

As shown on its website, U.S. News applied the following weight to the ranking factors for 2021:

Graduation and Retention Rate (22%)

This factor covers the average six-year graduation rate and the average retention rate of first-year students.

Undergraduate Academic Reputation (20%)

This factor measures how an institution is surveyed by administrators, including presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions, at institutions in the same ranking category.

Faculty Resources for 2019–2020 Academic Year (20%)

This factor looks at class-size index, faculty compensation, the percentage of faculty members with terminal degrees in their fields, the percentage of faculty members who are full-time employees, and the student-faculty ratio.

Financial Resources per Student (10%)

This factor measures the average spending per full-time-equivalent student on instruction, research, public service, academic support, student support, and institution support during the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Graduation Rate Performance (8%)

This factor compares the actual six-year graduation rate for students who entered school in fall 2012 and fall 2013 with the predicted graduation rate for the classes.

Student Selectivity for the Fall 2019 Entering Class (7%)

“Student selectivity” evaluates first-year students’ performance on the math and evidence-based reading and writing portions of the SAT and the composite ACT, as well as the proportion of students who were in the top 10% and 25% of their high school class.

Social Mobility (5%)

This indicator measures how well schools graduate recipients of Federal Pell Grants.

Average Alumni Giving Rate (3%)

This rate is the mean percentage of undergraduate alumni of record who donated money to their alma mater.

Graduate Indebtedness (3%)

This factor looks at the average amount of accumulated federal loan debt among the 2019 bachelor’s degree graduating class.

How Should Students Use U.S. News Rankings?

U.S. News chief data strategist Robert Morse writes that the outlet’s college rankings are a great starting point for prospective students and their parents. The Best Colleges guide allows students to compare and contrast colleges based on their rankings, and it provides detailed information for each ranking.

Morse encourages prospective students to dive deep into the guide and discover schools that they may not have heard of to get a better idea of which institutions they can see themselves at. Students can use the guide to gather information on a school’s size, location, cost, etc.

How Can Colleges Improve Their U.S. News Rankings?

The arguments surrounding the validity of the rankings are proof enough that the rankings aren’t everything, but institutions can improve their value and campus programs by rethinking the ways in which they are marketing to prospective students. Staying relevant should be top of mind for any institution, and if efforts to do so end up with better U.S. News rankings, then that’s an added bonus.

Some outreach efforts that have helped institutions improve their rankings through enrolling high-quality students include:

  • Utilizing social media to reach and engage with prospective students
  • Streamlining application processes
  • Building targeted marketing campaigns that speak to how rankings are influenced
  • Hosting webinars
  • Featuring expert roundups

Let Circa’s Experts Help You Improve Your Brand Image

Circa Interactive’s team of digital marketing experts is here to help you elevate your brand and meet your enrollment goals. We can help you engage with prospective students through messaging that helps tell your story and lets future students see themselves at your institution, regardless of rankings.

Justin Fisher
Justin Fisher is a director of analytics & digital strategy at Circa Interactive with extensive experience in education as a digital marketer at the University of Wisconsin and Pearson. He was even a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin School of Business for digital marketing/advertising undergraduate courses and MBA courses. Aside from his roles in higher education, Justin has managed paid media and SEO strategies for global brands such as the Golf Channel and Disney. Justin earned a Bachelor’s in Economics from the University of Central Florida, a Master’s in Information Management from Arizona State University, and, most recently, a management certificate from the University of Wisconsin.

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