Guide to College Rankings

Your Guide to College Rankings

Rankings are a fantastic resource to use when researching colleges and universities. They can help you compare your favorite schools and give you all kinds of insights, from the academic quality of a college’s programs to student life opportunities and average alumni salaries.

This guide will help answer the most commonly asked questions about college rankings, including the top college ranking systems, how rankings are determined and when rankings are released. It will also define commonly used terms within the world of college rankings.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best college ranking systems?

The best college ranking systems are trusted sources and publications among colleges and the general public. The most well-known include:

When are college rankings released?

College rankings are typically released on an annual basis and are based off of data from the previous school year.

  • U.S. News & World Report University Rankings- September
  • Forbes - August
  • Wall Street Journal - September
  • Niche - August
  • Princeton Review - August
  • Money Magazine - August
  • Washington Monthly - September

How are college rankings determined?

Thousands of factors can go into determining college rankings, including reputation, student surveys and topics like academic quality (graduation rates, retention rates), student life opportunities (travel abroad, research, and service opportunities) and return on investment (average starting salary of graduates, career placement rates and tuition).

On top of that, each ranking system uses different factors and methodologies to categorize and rank schools. Take a look at the top ranking systems and their ranking methodologies.

U.S. News & World Report
U.S. News & World Report provides annual rankings and profiles for more than 1,800 colleges and universities in the United States. The publication also provides lists like best schools for veteran services, best value schools and best business schools.

U.S. News & World rankings are determined based on five categories: Outcomes, Faculty Resources, Expert Opinion, Financial Resources and Student Excellence.

  • Outcomes (weighted at 35%) accounts for things like how many students graduate within six years and how many students transfer to other schools.
  • Faculty Resources (20%) covers things like faculty salary and class size.
  • Expert Opinion (20%), or peer review, is calculated through surveying provosts, deans and presidents on the reputation of peer colleges.
  • Financial Resources (10%) covers research and available student experiences.
  • Student Excellence (10%) considers standardized test scores and high school grades.
  • Alumni Giving (5%) considers the number of graduates who donate to their universities after obtaining their bachelor degrees.

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Forbes’ annual publication provides a ranked list of 650 universities and colleges. According to their data, these institutions deliver top academics, the best student experiences, career success and the lowest debt. Rankings can be sorted by region, state, private/public and school size.

Forbes rankings are determined by six categories: Alumni Salaries, Student Satisfaction, Debt, American Leaders, On-time Graduation Rate, and Academic Success.

  • Alumni Salaries (weighted at 20%) combines early and mid-career salaries.
  • Student Satisfaction (20%) includes results from Niche Surveys and freshman retention rates.
  • The Debt category (20%) covers student loan and default rates.
  • American Leaders (15%) covers Forbes’ database of successful people, including billionaires, leaders in public service and 30 under 30 Honorees.
  • On-Time Graduation Rate (12.5%) includes how many students graduate in four to six years.
  • Academic Success (12.5%) includes alumni who win prestigious awards and scholarships, like the Rhodes and Fulbright.

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Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal’s annual college rankings are calculated using student surveys alongside data points like alumni earnings and student loan debt. Survey questions cover student views on things like teaching and interactions with faculty and other students.

The rankings are determined by performance in four major areas: Outcomes, Resources, Engagement and Environment.

  • Outcomes (weighted at 40%) measures things like alumni salaries and student loan debt.
  • Resources (30%) highlight the spending schools put into classroom instruction and student services.
  • Engagement (20%) is based on student surveys and examines student views on things like teaching and interactions with faculty and other students.
  • Environment (10%) assesses the diversity of the university community.

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Niche sorts four-year schools and provides college scorecard profiles using over 180,000 reviews from real students and alumni alongside data collected from places like the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. Rankings are determined by performance in eight major areas:

  • Academics (weighted at 40%), which includes acceptance rates and alumni surveys.
  • Value (27.5%), which covers student loan amount and alumni earnings.
  • Professors (7.5%), incorporating faculty awards and student to faculty ratio.
  • Campus (5%) covers quality of food, housing options and student facilities.
  • Diversity (5%) incorporates ethnic composition of the student body and proportion of international and out of state students.
  • Student Life (5%) covers safety, athletics and diversity.
  • Overall Experience (5%) uses student survey data rating their schools on a scale of 1-5.
  • Local Area (2.5%) covers median rent, crime rates and access to amenities.
  • Safety (2.5%) incorporates student surveys regarding health and safety resources as well as local crime rates.

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Princeton Review
Princeton Review’s annual list of Best 385 Colleges is based on more than 140,000 student surveys. The publication also provides the top 20 colleges in 62 categories based on students’ opinions of academics, campus life, facilities, and much more.

A college's appearance on a ranking list is determined by what its own students surveyed by The Princeton Review reported about their campus experiences as well as how they rated various aspects of their college life.

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Money Magazine
Money Magazine’s annual list uses more than 1,900 data points to sort more than 700 colleges and universities. The list ranks and profiles schools that successfully combine affordability and quality academics and outcomes, according to their metrics.

Money Magazine rankings are determined by performance in three major categories:

  • Quality of Education (weighted at 33.33%) is calculated using factors like six-year graduation rates, standardized test scores, student to faculty ratio and Pell Grant recipient outcomes.
  • Affordability (33.33%) covers tuition, debt, affordability for low-income students and ability to repay debt.
  • Outcomes (33.33%) includes factors like graduate earnings and employment outcomes.

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Washington Monthly
Washington Monthly’s annual list ranks four-year schools based on their contribution to the public good in three major categories: social mobility, research and opportunities for public service. They also rank America’s Affordable Elite Colleges, the Best Colleges for Adult Learners, and the Best Bang for the Buck colleges. 

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