US News and World Report's Best Colleges List

Jun 2024

16 Minute Read

Tagged as: Choosing a School/Program

Discusses how colleges are divided, how it's ranked, a brief discussion of methods for business, engineering, and global university rankings

Since 1983, U.S. News and World Report has produced the "Best Colleges" list. This list ranks the quality of colleges and universities so that parents and students can make informed decisions about what schools will make a strong investment in their education.

The U.S. News and World Report’s ranking is only one of many, but it is the most well-known. The publication notes that these rankings should serve as only as one of several sources of information students should use when researching and selecting a university to attend.

There is a lot more to know about a university beyond its rank. However, ranking lists such as this one can provide a lot of good information. In this post, we will talk about how the authors of this list rank the schools on it based on their size and attributes.

Institution type and size

Because post-secondary educational institutions vary widely in their mission, size, scope, and structure, not all of these institutions are directly compared in the rankings. First, the colleges are divided into the following four groups based on a school’s size, scope, and. These groups that are roughly similar in terms of their goals as an institution.

  1. National Universities: National Universities are what are often referred to as "major research institutions." These schools offer a full range of undergraduate majors, as well as both master’s and doctoral degree programs. At these universities, students can be exposed to some of the top researchers in the world. However, this also means that many faculty at these universities are often focused primarily on research or post-baccalaureate teaching rather than on the education of undergraduates.
  2. National Liberal Arts Colleges: National liberal arts colleges focus almost exclusively on high-quality undergraduate education. Additionally, more than 50% of the students at these universities pursue undergraduate degrees in the arts or sciences, rather than technical, vocational, or professional degrees. Faculty at these schools usually do some research but are more focused on undergraduate education than their peers at national university.
  3. Regional Universities: Regional Universities offer a broad range of undergraduate degrees as well as some master’s degree programs but offer few, if any, doctoral degree programs. On a practical level, these schools are generally larger in terms of enrollment than liberal arts colleges but less intensely focused on research than national university, so they may offer a midpoint between the two in terms of undergraduate experience.
  4. Regional Colleges: Schools classified as regional colleges are, like national liberal arts colleges, focused almost exclusively on undergraduate education, and produce few if any post-baccalaureate degrees. However, unlike liberal arts colleges, less than 50% of their regional college students graduate with Arts and Sciences degrees. Oftentimes, this is because the college is focused primarily on a particular type of technical or vocational degree. Military academies and technical institutes are often classified as regional colleges.

Institutional Attributes

After a school is classified by size and region, it is then assigned a rank within the four lists based on the following seven factors. Some factors are weighted more heavily in a school’s rankings than others–for instance, graduation rates and reputation play a far greater role in determining rank than the alumni giving rate.

  1. Graduation and Retention Rates: Schools are judged both 1) on their ability to ensure completion of an undergraduate course of study in a reasonable amount of time, and 2) their ability to retain students in their programs once they start. These factors are reported as a 6-year graduation rate—the percent of enrolled freshmen who graduate in 6 years—and a retention rate–the percentage of enrolled freshmen who return for their sophomore year.
  2. Undergraduate Academic Reputation: This factor attempts to quantify the degree to which a school is respected by professionals who know the school by reputation. The actual numbers are obtained by sending surveys to two different groups: high school counselors at highly-ranked U.S. high schools, and faculty and administrators at educational institutions in the same class (national universities rank other national universities, etc).
  3. Faculty Resources: This criterion assesses the quality of faculty and the access of students to that faculty at a given institution. When calculating faculty resources, class size, faculty pay, student-to-faculty ratio, and the total percentage of faculty who are full-time employees of the institution are all considered.
  4. Student Selectivity: This factor discusses the quality of the students coming into an institution as freshmen using the following three measures: 1) the average admissions test scores of incoming students, 2) the percent of students who were ranked in the top 10% of their high school’s graduating class, and 3) the ratio of accepted students to the total number who applied.
  5. Financial Resources: A university’s financial resources are assessed based on the amount of institutional spending per student, with greater spending being considered a positive. Spending per student only counts if it goes towards instruction or student services. It does not include spending on sports, residence halls, or medical facilities.
  6. Graduation Rate Performance: This relatively new addition (1997) to the ranking system attempts to measure how much "added value" a school is providing to its students. US News and World Report compares the graduation rate it predicts for each graduating class based on its own statistics on student quality when the class enters as freshmen to the actual graduation rate obtained four years later. Schools who beat the US News and World Report prediction are considered to be over-performing, while those that fall below are said to be underperforming.
  7. Alumni Giving Rate: This factor attempts to gauge student satisfaction by looking at the percentage of the two most recent graduating classes of a school that chose to give money to their institution.

Ranking for the most popular programs and worldwide participation

Methodology for Undergraduate Business Program Rankings

"The U.S. News undergraduate business school rankings are based solely on the judgments of deans and senior faculty members at peer institutions." (US News and World Report)

These judgments are obtained by asking deans and faculty of undergraduate business schools to rate the programs of other undergraduate business schools on a standardized survey. This same survey asks the respondents to nominate the top ten programs in each of several specialty areas, such as accounting or marketing. The rankings for these specialty programs are based on how often a given school is mentioned in these nominations.

Methodology for Undergraduate Engineering Program Rankings1

"The U.S. News rankings of the undergraduate engineering programs accredited by ABET are based solely on the judgments of deans and senior faculty at peer institutions." (US News and World Report)

Similarly to the business schools, these judgments are obtained by surveying deans and faculty of undergraduate engineering programs.

Methodology for Global University Rankings

"As an increasing number of students plan to enroll in universities outside of their own country, the Best Global Universities rankings – which focus specifically on schools’ academic research and reputation overall and not on their separate undergraduate or graduate programs – can help those applicants accurately compare institutions around the world." (US News and World Report)

Unlike the rankings for US best colleges, Global University Rankings do not attempt to focus on the quality of schools simply as either undergraduate or graduate institutions. Rather, the global rankings attempt to broadly assess the general reputation of the school as a whole as well as the research it produces.

The weights of ranking criteria are given in the chart below. This is the data directly from US News and World Report. Shown below are the indicators as of 2016.

A table listing US News and World Report's weighted factors for ranking global research universities.

A quick note: When the authors refer to "normalized citation impact," this means:

"The total number of citations per paper…[which] represents the overall impact of the research of the university."2

Because this particular ranking considers how institutions work to produce world-class research, institutions that are excellent at teaching undergraduate students, but that do not heavily prioritize research, are unlikely to rank highly. On the other hand, institutions that teach only or mostly graduate students, such as Rockefeller University, are eligible for ranking in the Global University Rankings, but not in the Best Colleges Rankings.

Later, we will be looking at other ranking systems and other ways to determine whether a university is right for you.

Finally, if you're starting to apply to colleges or are beginning your college search, Occam's free app, Wend, is now available on the App Store! With free test prep, college search tools, and essay-writing guides, Wend has everything you need to navigate the college application process with ease.


  1. Due to high demand for information on business and engineering schools, a more detailed post will follow in the future.
  2. Quote from US News and World Report

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