written by
Abbie Sage

What Are College Rankings: An Expert’s Guide

10 min read
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In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert Abbie explains how college rankings are calculated and how they impact the application process. For more guidance on planning for the future and the college application process in general, sign up to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

College Rankings and Admissions

Throughout the college admissions process, you’ve probably heard counselors, parents, and teachers talk about college rankings. Maybe you’ve even combed through the U.S. News college rankings as part of your college list research.

Need help building your college list? Our guide to selecting the best colleges for you is a great place to start!

U.S. News has been in the college rankings business since 1983, and the lists they produce are often considered to be industry standards for determining the best colleges in the US.

But where do these college rankings come from, and what do they mean for students? In this article, we’ll break down college rankings: how they’re made, what they signify, and how they relate to applicants in the admissions process.

What are college rankings?

Each year, organizations like U.S. News, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes (among others) publish lists of the best colleges in the US. Many of these organizations have ranked colleges and universities for many years. Each year, their rankings shift as they change their criteria and weights for each category. For example, U.S. News college rankings considers average alumni giving rate in their rankings, whereas Niche gives each institution a diversity score. The college rankings also shift to address changing school policies. Since COVID-19, many schools introduced a test-optional admissions policy. Now, you can also find test-optional rankings.

The language of college rankings appears throughout the college admissions sphere. Throughout your college application process, you’ll probably hear counselors, advisors, and other adults discuss “Top 10,” “Top 20,” and “Top 50” schools. These terms directly describe college rankings, though they also often serve as a shorthand for how selective a particular school may be. For example, you’ll find that some professionals in the college admissions sphere use the phrase “Top 20 colleges” as a synonym for the best colleges in the US. Similarly, you’ll often hear “Top 100 colleges” as a way to describe good colleges.

College rankings can significantly impact institutions’ ability to fundraise from alumni, recruit faculty, and more. For this reason, colleges often care a lot about their rankings.

What is the best college ranking list?

So, which college rankings should you use to get a sense of the best colleges in the US?

You might have heard about the U.S. News college rankings from teachers or counselors. The U.S. News college rankings are one of the more well-known college ranking lists. You might also check out Niche college rankings for their evaluations of the top colleges in the US.

There are a number of different organizations that aim to list the best colleges in the US. However, as we’ll discuss in this article, these college rankings will never be totally objective. Every student needs different things in a college, and with so many good colleges out there, it’s hard to reduce any school to a single position on a list.

No college rankings should be taken as gospel. Instead, you should view the U.S. News college rankings (and other college rankings) as one tool in your college admissions toolkit. After all, the “best colleges in the US” may not always be the best colleges for you.

How are college rankings calculated?

So, what information do college rankings use to help students understand the best colleges in the US?

Every college or university is different. This means that no ranking can objectively represent which schools are “good colleges.” With so much variety between institutions, it can be hard to distinguish the top colleges in the US.

College rankings are often divided into two categories: research universities and liberal arts colleges. Organizations make this distinction in order to better assess schools; after all, it would be challenging to compare a small college like Swarthmore to a large university like Duke, as these schools operate with different interests and priorities.

Ranking criteria

To determine the best colleges in the US, organizations like U.S. news use various rubrics and methodologies. Different organizations use different factors to evaluate the top colleges in the US and determine college rankings. Broadly speaking, these organizations tend to base college rankings on:

  1. Graduation and Student Retention Rates — how many students graduate from a school or remain students beyond their first year.
  2. Graduate Performance — employment statistics for graduates.
  3. Academic Reputation — an assessment of academics by official surveys.
  4. Faculty Resources — faculty salaries, student to faculty ratio, and class size.
  5. Student Selectivity for Entering Class — admitted students’ SAT/ACT scores and class ranks, as well as acceptance rates.
  6. Financial Resources per Student — numerical representation of money available for each student based on endowment and student population.
  7. Graduate Indebtedness — outstanding loans owed by the average graduate.

As stated, different organizations use different metrics to create college rankings, so this list is not exhaustive. To read the full explanation of the U.S. News college rankings, click here.

Notably, most organizations that generate college rankings only consider official data. This comes with benefits and pitfalls; while the data they use tends to be accurate, it doesn’t account for nuanced parts of the college experience including student satisfaction and campus life.

What is the #1 college in the US?

It depends who you ask!

The top colleges in the US (according to U.S. News and other outlets) tend to shift between years. Based on the 2022 U.S. News college rankings for research universities, Princeton is the best college in the US (and Williams is the best liberal arts school). However, according to Niche college rankings, MIT is the best college in the US.

Essentially, there are hundreds of good colleges, and there’s no easy way to designate the best colleges in the US. While looking at the U.S. News college rankings might give you an idea of the top colleges in the US, you’ll have more success in your college search by doing your own research!

Interested in how the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) calculated this year’s rankings? This video talks about how COVID affected their overall rankings.

Are higher-ranked colleges more selective?

In a word, yes. However, this comes with some nuance.

As noted above, evaluating bodies use selectivity criteria to create college rankings. More selective colleges, therefore, tend to be ranked higher. Higher-ranked colleges, in turn, then attract more applicants, often making them more selective. This creates a sort of feedback loop.

Because of this and other factors including faculty and financial resources, you’ll often see a similar set of schools at the top of every college ranking. This is one of the reasons why we often use “top ten/twenty/fifty” as a shorthand for the best colleges in the US. While some schools may shift up or down a bit, rankings remain largely consistent from year to year, as these schools’ resources remain largely the same.

If this seems overwhelming, here’s what you need to know: a top ten school will be more competitive than a top 50 school. However, a school ranked at #4 will not be particularly more competitive than one ranked at #8. Similarly, if a school rises or falls by a few marks between years, it won’t have a major bearing on whether or not you can get in.

Should I think about college rankings while creating my college list?

As you build your college list, you should think foremost about “fit”—that is, whether a school is right for you. “Fit” depends on a wide range of factors including location, campus culture, program offerings, and more—none of which factor into college rankings. There are so many good colleges out there, and many good colleges for you might not appear at the top of the U.S. News rankings.

It’s totally fair to want to attend one of the best schools in the US. After all, highly ranked colleges and universities tend to have robust academics, knowledgeable faculty, and vast resources. However, you shouldn’t decide to go to a school because of its ranking. Instead, focus on what each school on your list offers. Talk to students, reach out to professors, and visit campuses—this research will do a lot more for you than any college ranking can!

Of course, we understand that students often want to attend the top colleges in the US. If that sounds like you, that’s great! Just make sure that you’re applying to these schools for the right reasons. (Psst—if you want some tips on the Ivy League application application process, click here.)

What is Niche college ranking?

Niche college ranking, like the U.S. News college rankings, is another college ranking list that aims to distinguish the best colleges in the US.

Once again, you should take all college rankings with a grain of salt. As you look for the top colleges in the US, make sure you think about the criteria you want in a school. Rankings matter much less than fit!

How do college rankings influence financial aid?

Broadly speaking, you should not fixate on college rankings as you build your college list. However, if financial aid will be a major factor in your college journey, you’ll want to understand how rankings might impact your funding.

The relationship between college rankings and financial aid differs by school. In some cases, however, college rankings can influence how schools evaluate students’ SAT and ACT scores. Note that some of this has shifted in recent months due to the widespread adoption of test-optional policies—click here for more information about test-optional schools.

Wondering if you should skip standardized tests this year? Take a look at our blog article on test-optional school policies:

Basically, SAT and ACT scores form one aspect of how U.S. News and other outlets create college rankings. Colleges and universities with higher SAT/ACT scores in their student bodies will often receive higher rankings. This incentivizes schools to recruit students with higher SAT and ACT scores in order to boost their rankings.

Practically speaking, this practice means that a student with a 1600 SAT might receive a hefty merit scholarship from a school outside the top 20 or top 50, as the student’s score would help the school’s statistics. If you’re hoping to secure as much aid as possible, this practice can work in your favor. However, financial aid varies by school, so don’t get overly hung up on its relation to college rankings!

Will my college’s ranking impact my ability to get a job when I graduate?

When creating college rankings, U.S. News and other outlets consider postgraduate opportunities as part of a school’s overall profile. In other words, schools whose graduates succeed in the workforce tend to score higher rankings and gain recognition as the best colleges in the US. This creates a bit of a feedback loop: while higher-ranked colleges tend to put out successful graduates, the success of these graduates increases these colleges’ rankings.

Attending one of the best colleges in the US will often make you attractive to employers. However, you shouldn’t look at this solely through the lens of college rankings. Few employers will deny you an interview if you went to the #12 school in the country and another candidate went to the #9 school.

If you’re overly concerned about the relationship between college rankings and employment—don’t be! After all, there are so many good colleges out there. Additionally, your employability largely comes down to who you are rather than where you went to college. Thriving at the #22 school in the nation will serve you much better than suffering at the #8 school. As with most things in college admissions, how you “fit” at a given school matters most, both during your time there and after graduation.

For more information about how to plan for your future after college, check out our article.

College Rankings: Final Thoughts

College rankings can be a useful tool, especially as you learn more about different institutions and try to find the best colleges that will fit your needs. However, try not to fixate on them! At the end of the day, you want to apply to the best colleges for you—not for U.S. News.


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This piece on college rankings was written by Abbie Sage, Harvard ‘21. If you want to get help with your college applications from CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.