This post is an updated version of our popular blog post originally published by Lloyd Nimetz on Medium on January 3, 2017. The original can be found here.
This year, US News made a minor tweak to its criteria, but that minor tweak led to largest disruption of the US News college ranking in 20 years.
University of Florida, ranked last year at 52, landed at 35 this year ahead of Boston College, Boston University, and Case Western Reserve. Meanwhile, all of the University of California schools have jumped dramatically, including UC-Santa Barbara from 38 to 30. These schools have not magically improved in quality over the past year (even though I’m a huge fan of Florida’s current president, Kent Fuchs, my former provost at Cornell). Rather, the goalposts have shifted to elevate these universities. While they are still considered by many employers and graduate schools in the US to be “lower-grade,” students who use the US News rankings might mistakenly perceive them to be more prestigious. However, it may take many years for the prestige of these schools to rise in the eyes of the general public, if ever.
We have always advised students to be a bit skeptical of rankings, but we still believe that they are a necessary evil, particularly for international students who are unfamiliar with the US system and need a way to understand schools’ perceived quality. By replacing “acceptance rate” with “social mobility” in its formula, US News, long considered the gold standard of college rankings, has jeopardized its standing. We applaud their effort to reward schools that do a good job of lifting students out of poverty, but worry that they will no longer be all that useful to international students as the go-to indicator of a school’s prestige.
Because of this, if you are trying to understand how prestigious schools are, we now recommend students use the US News Counselor Rankings, which is based purely on US guidance counselors’ opinions of schools and gives a very strong read on overall perception of different universities’ reputations. Additionally, as detailed in our guide below, our favorite ranking is still the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education’s.
Unlike universities in Taiwan and many other countries, US colleges are not clearly ranked from best to worst. In fact, US colleges resist being ranked because they don’t believe there is a way to accurately rank all the complexities of a great college education and experience. For this reason, don’t believe the exactness of the rankings (i.e. college #10 is better than college #11), but you can trust the good ones to help you deduce the general quality of different colleges (i.e. college #10 is better than college #30). Therefore to help you with the daunting task of figuring out which college rankings are “good,” here are a few rankings that we use and recommend to our students:
Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education — This ranking was launched recently by two of world’s most respected journalistic outlets and has received very good reviews. It is our personal favorite at The Spike Lab because its underlying methodology most accurately takes into account the factors that students and families, on average, care about when deciding on their preferred college. While other rankings tend to emphasize “perceived” quality, WSJ/THE does the best job of trying to pinpoint data that accurately reflects the actual experience of the students and graduates of each university. In particular, the ranking puts more emphasis on outcomes. More specifically, it puts a weight on outcomes data, broken down by graduation rate, value added to graduate salary, value added to the loan repayment rate, and academic reputation. The concepts of value added to graduate salary and loan repayment rate are not incorporated in the US News ranking. This WSJ/THE ranking also puts weight on “engagement” data: how well does the college engage and inspire the students, which is defined by the following data: student engagement, student recommendations, interaction with teachers and students, and number of accredited programmes. There is a lot of subjective data (from student and expert surveys) that is hard to measure accurately, but the WSJ/THE has done a good job and this ranking will only improve over time.
US News & World Report — If the measure of a good ranking is that college administrators care about it the most, then, despite the changes we detailed above, this is still the most important ranking. Based on anecdotal evidence, it’s also probably the most widely utilized college ranking. U.S News offers a plethora of lists (best national universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities, public universities, best value universities and engineering programs, to name a few) such that every school’s a winner. Nevertheless, U.S News does offer a comprehensive and well-regarded ranking system, which can help students who want to get a very general sense of the “quality” of a college. However, for the best possible sense of prestige, we recommend their Counselor Rankings in particular over the general “Best Colleges” list.
Forbes “America’s Top Colleges” — This list gives schools points for things that might appeal to students more attuned to their careers and financial interests, including future career achievement, salaries, and debt. Ratings are based on the number of alumni who end up in Who’s Who in America, the amount of students and professors receiving awards and the number of students who graduate in debt (among other less tangible stats.) This no-nonsense list can help you find the private and public colleges that offer the best value in educational, cultural and — perhaps most importantly — capital returns. Forbes also has a new college list called the Forbes 50 Best Colleges for International Students. They created this new ranking that was designed for international students wanting to go to US Colleges and therefore it was designed to take into account the factors that international students care about the most. They defined these factors as: education quality, percent international students, percent growth of international student, international student graduate rate, existence of popular programs and concentrations like business, entrepreneurship and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Niche Colleges — This list relies on student authors to give accurate and up-to-date reviews of their school. Each institution has a profile, replete with stats and a brutally honest report card. If you like letter grades, and if you want to know that your top choice school has an “A” in academics but a “B-” in facilities, then this is the site for you. In addition to grades, the college profiles contain basic stats and figures, comments and lists of comparable schools.
Princeton Review — Princeton Review is well respected as a test prep tutoring company and also has good data on colleges. It doesn’t directly rank colleges, but instead has chosen the top 381 colleges in the US — out of an approximate total of 2,300 total 4-year colleges in the country. We recommend this website as a great resource for more in-depth research on any of these top US colleges. In particular, we like to use their “Admissions Selectivity” ranking (on a scale from 60–99) as a relatively accurate measure of how competitive admissions is at the school. Quick tip: If you don’t have one of the top candidacy profiles in the world that gives you the pickings of any college, then apply to schools that maximize school quality (optimizing for your unique interests) relative to admissions selectivity.
QS World University College Rankings — If you think like a global citizen and want to evaluate Universities across the world, then this might be the list for you. Ranking universities within one country is hard enough but finding consistent and accurate ways to compare colleges across different educational and data reporting systems is very difficult. Nonetheless, they’ve done a good job and are probably the most respected international college ranking system. QS, which stands for Quacquarelli Symonds, also offers a wide range of more target rankings (i.e. Best Asian Universities, etc).
We recommend that you review these rankings to get a general sense of quality and then talk to an expert to help you create a long list of colleges that are a good fit for you. You can download and use The Spike Lab’s free “College Full List” that summarizes in one place all the most important data for the top US colleges as ranked by US News’s top US colleges rankings and the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings.