How College Rankings Work

Updated February 6, 2023 · 5 Min Read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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College rankings are important to millions of incoming students a year, yet few actually know how the rankings are compiled. To give viewers a more clear look at what's involved with compiling college rankings at the top rankings organizations, the editors at College Choice have created this graphic to explain methodologies.

Millions of incoming students consult college rankings to gauge:

But often get conflicting answers:

Forbes Top Ten National Universities

1. Stanford University
2. Princeton University
3. MIT
4. Yale University
5. Harvard University
6. University of Pennsylvania
7. Brown University
8. Wesleyan University
9. University of Notre Dame
10. Northwestern University

US News Top 10 National Universities

1. Princeton University
2. Harvard University
3. Yale University
4. Stanford University
4. Columbia University
4. University of Chicago
7. MIT
8. University of Pennsylvania
8. Duke
10. California Institute of Technology

Let's check out what goes into making each college ranking unique.


The Carnegie classification establishes what type of school a school is by its mission:

[statbox title="Associate's Colleges" content="14 types" theme="tertiary"] [statbox title="Doctorate-granting Universities" content="3 types" theme="tertiary"] [statbox title="Master's Colleges and Universities" content="3 types" theme="tertiary"] [statbox title="Baccalaureate Colleges" content="3 types" theme="tertiary"] [statbox title="Special Focus Institutions" content="9 types" theme="tertiary"]

US News and World Report

Since 1983, collects data on 1,800 schools (1,365 schools are ranked or described as "rank not published").[2]

Schools are divided into four categories:

  • National Universities: full range of undergraduate majors, master's and doctoral programs, emphasis on faculty research.
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges: almost exclusively undergraduate education, at least 50% of degrees in arts and sciences
  • Regional Universities: full range of undergraduate majors, some master's degrees, few or no doctoral programs
  • Regional Colleges: focus on undergraduate education, grant less than 50% of degrees in liberal arts disciplines


1. Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%)
A measure based on surveys of top academic peers (presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions) from other institutions. For National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges 2,152 counselors from U.S. Best High School High Schools are polled as well.

2. Retention (22.5%)
—80% 6-year graduation rate
—20% Freshman year retention rate

3. Faculty resources (20%)
—30% proportion of classes with less than 20 students
—10% proportion of classes with less than 50 students
—35% Average Faculty Pay, plus benefits, adjusted for cost of living
—15% Proportion of professors with terminal degrees
—5% Student-faculty ratio
—5% proportion of faculty who are full time

4. Student Selectivity (12.5%)
—65% Math and reading portions of SAT and composite ACT scores of enrollees
—25% For National Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges, proportion of enrolled freshman from top 10 percent of their graduating class; from Regional Colleges and Universities, proportion of enrolled freshman who graduated in the top 25% of their class.
—10% Acceptance Rate: the number of students to admitted applicants.

5. Financial Resources (10%)
—100% average spending per student on instruction, research, student services, and related expenditures.

6. Graduation rate performance (7.5%)
—100% the difference between a school's six year graduation rate from the most recent year, and the rate US News predicted for the college.

7. Alumni giving rate (5%)
—100% percent of living alumni with bachelor's degrees who gave in the last two years.

Forbes, "The Results Rankings,"

Lists 650 schools with data from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.


1. Student Satisfaction (25%)
—10% student evaluations from RateMyProfessor
—12.5% freshman-sophomore retention rates
—2.5% predicted freshman-sophomore retention rates

2. Post-Graduate Success (32.5%)
—10% salary of alumni by school from
—22.5% CCAP America's Leaders List, including various award winners and Forbes lists.

3.Graduation Rate (7.5%)
—5% four-year graduation rate
—2.5% actual vs. predicted graduation rate

4. Academic Success (10%)
—7.5% reward for schools whose students win prestigious scholarships and fellowships
—2.5% reward for schools who students go on to earn Ph.D's.

Niche's, College Prowler, "The Diversified Rankings"

Records on 2,245 public and private traditional four-year colleges and universities. (1,540 colleges receive a grade, and 892 receive numerical ranking

Considering student surveys over 20 topics.
No one factor accounts for more than 7% of the overall ranking.

1. Best Academics Ranking (35%)
—82% Incorporates statistics and student surveys regarding academics on campus.
—18% SAT/ACT scores
Source: Niche Ranking

2. Student Survey Responses (12%)
—100% student surveys of quality of overall experience, from 25,090 unique students. Minimum of 10 unique students per college.
Source: Niche users

3. Best Campus Ranking (8%)
—100% Statistics and student surveys on facilities and campus.
Source: Niche Ranking

4. Loan Default Rate (6%)
—100% Loan default rate for students graduating three years prior who have not deferred.
Source: US Department of Education

5. Best Athletics Ranking (5%)
—100% Statistics and student surveys on athletics on campus
Source: Niche Ranking

6. Average Net Price (5%)
—100% Average cost ager financial aid for students receiving grant or scholarship aid.
Source: US Department of Education

7. Most Diverse Campus Ranking (5%)
—100% Statistics and student surveys regarding diversity on campus
Source: Niche Ranking

8. Best Location Ranking (5%)
—100% Statistics and student surveys regarding the local area around campus
Source: Niche Ranking

9. Endowment per full-time student (4%)
—100% endowment or full-time fall undergraduate and graduate enrollment.
Source: U.S. Department of Education

10. Best Students Ranking (4%)
—100% statistics and student surveys regarding students on campus
Source: Niche Ranking

11. Safest Campus Ranking (4%)
—100% statistics and student surveys regarding health and safety services on campus
Source: Niche Ranking

12. Best party schools ranking (4%)
—100% statistics and student surveys regarding nightlife on campus.

13. Private girts/grants per full time student (3%)
—100% Revenue from private donors per total full-time fall enrollment (undergraduate and graduate)

Princeton Review

Multifaceted rankings

Princeton Review places a number of a scale, giving users rankings for a variety of criteria.

1. Academics, scaled 60-99
—Hours of study, quality of students, professor assessments, class size, student-teacher ratio, use of TA's, class discussion, registration, resources.
Source: Student surveys and data from administrators

2. Admissions Selectivity, scaled 60-99
— Class rank of incoming students, average test scores, average high school GPA, % of students from out of state, % of applicants accepted.
Source: Institutionally reported factors

3. Financial Aid, scaled 60-99
—Student survey on financial aid, % of students who need and receive aid, % of need met, % of need fully met.
Source: School reported data

4. Fire Safety, scaled 60-99
—School collected data on fire sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, malicious and unwanted fire alarms, banning of hazardous items, alarm systems.
Source: School collected data

5. Quality of life, scaled 60-99
—Measures overall happiness, beauty, safety, and location of campus, comfort of dorms, quality of food, ease of transportation and dealing with administrators, friendliness of fellow students, interaction between student groups, quality of school/community relationship.
Source: student assessments

6. Green, scaled 60-99
—Is life on campus healthy and sustainable, is the school preparing students to be green, are school policies environmentally responsible.
Source: School reported data

7. Are Professors Interesting, scaled 60-99
—Level of agreement with the statement "your professors are good teachers."
Source: Student surveys

8. Are professors accessible, scaled 60-99
—Level of agreement with the statement "your instructors are accessible outside the classroom."
Source: Student surveys

College Choice: Rankings Students Want

Factors most important to college decisions:
Academic Reputation
Financial Aid Offerings
Overall Cost
Success of graduates in post-college job market
(According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA)


1. Academic reputation (25%)
—Used schools academic reputation score.
Source: US News and World Report

2. Financial Aid Offerings (25%)
—Average amount of scholarships and grants awarded to students.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics

3. Overall Cost (25%)
—Overall net cost.
Source:National Center for Education Statistics

4. Success in the job market (25%)
—The average starting salary for graduates.

Washington Monthly: The "Social Good" Rankings

3 Broad Categories: Social Mobility, Research, and Service

Sample size: 1,540 colleges including public private nonprofit, and for-profit colleges Scores from the last 3 years are averaged to present large swings at small schools


All weighted equally.

1. Service
—Size of Air Force, Army and Navy ROTC programs
—Number of alumni currently in the Peace Corps
—% of federal work-study money spent on community service
—number of full-time staff supporting community service
—number of academic courses that incorporate service
—whether the institution provides scholarships for community service
All relative to school size.

2. Research
—Amount of research spending
—number of science and engineering PhDs awarded
—Number of undergrad alums who receive Phd's
—Number of faculty receiving prestigious awards
—Number of faculty in the National Academies
Relative to school size (last two)

3. Social Mobility
—Rewards schools that are good at both graduating students and keeping costs low.


Quality= 56.25%
Cost Factors= 43.75%


1. Competitiveness (25%)
— Considers admission rate, yield, and test scores of in coming freshman.

2. Graduation Rates (18.75%)
—Full points awarded for four-year graduation rates, half points for five-year graduation rates.

3. Academic Support (12.5%)
—Freshman retention rate and student/faculty rate.

4. Cost and Financial Aid (31.25%)
—Most points granted to schools with low cost and those who reduce price through need-based grants, as well as schools with highest % need met and % of students without need who receive aid.

5. Student Indebtedness (12.5%)
—Schools are rewarded for keeping student debt down and factoring in percentage of students who borrow.



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