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2019 U.S. News Best Colleges: If Top 10 Rarely Changes, What Does ‘Best’ Really Mean?*

by Daniel Tung

In American sports, several esteemed franchises ooze reputation and recognition even to non-fans: Lakers in basketball, Cowboys in football, and Yankees in baseball. Yet, if they were to win the championship every year, there would be a deafening outcry among the remaining fanbases.

Who knows what a fifth-straight Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals this year would have led to?

Competition thrives on novelty, a reason why U.S. News changed its ranking methodology, again, for its 2019 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings.

And if you live in California, you’ve probably heard the buzz. “UCLA is in the Top 20! Higher than UC Berkeley! UC Riverside went up from 124 to 85!”

But if you’re like most of my teenaged students, you probably can name a handful of schools, of which you know the ranking of none, which leads us to this question:

What does ‘best’ college mean anyway?

Depending on who you ask, it may mean campus safety, class size, professors, football games and parties, closest to the beach, or, often, simply furthest away possible from home.

However, the same familiar names have seemingly made a home for themselves at top of the list for the past several decades, and there is no deafening outcry (at least not from students and parents).

To understand what U.S. News deems best, let’s take a look at this year’s six ranking factors:

Outcomes (35%)

  • Social Mobility (5%)

  • Graduation and Retention (22%)

  • Graduation Rate Performance (8%)

New for this year is the social mobility factor based on graduation rates of students who receive Pell Grants. The idea here is to reward schools that benefit lower-income students and families by offering favorable financial aid packages. This is the major reason many public schools have seen sharp rises in ranking.

Faculty Resources (20%)

  • Class Size (8%)

  • Faculty Salary (7%)

  • Full-Time Faculty with Highest Degrees (3%)

  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio (1%)

  • Proportion of Full-Time Faculty (1%)

Nothing new this year. However, keep in mind that in order for schools to do well in this category, it must have the necessary financial resources. In fact, for a school in the mid-30s to gain one rank in this category, it would have to raise average faculty salary by $10,000, and that’s just for a small-to-medium-sized school.

Expert Opinion (20%)

  • Peer Assessment (15%)

  • High School Counselor Assessment (5%)

If I asked you to name a few schools off the top of your head, which schools could you always name? Exactly. Reputation precedes and is worth a whopping twenty percent here.

Financial Resources (10%)

  • Average Spending Per Student (10%)

As established earlier, a school needs money to spend money! Also, keep in mind it’s easier to raise the average amount spent per student when a school has fewer students.

Student Excellence (10%)

  • Standardized Tests (7.75%)

  • High School Class Rank (2.25%)

Acceptance rate has been removed from the equation, though it was just a paltry 1.25% last year. Coincidentally, Stanford announced this year that it will stop reporting its acceptance rate…

Alumni Giving (5%)

  • Average Percentage of Alumni Who Donate (5%)

The last category is interesting and favors schools that can produce the highest salaries for its graduates, not to mention a smaller student population, again, helps with boosting averages. According to U.S. News, Princeton tops this category, seeing nearly 61% of its alumni donate.

So, what do we do with this year's rankings? What does any of it really mean? If you’re a prospective student, the rankings can give you a clear idea of which schools are the wealthiest and can, therefore, provide the most (financial) resources, including the ability for top-ranked ones to provide a 50%+ chance for poor students to become rich, especially helpful when combined with generous financial aid options such as Princeton’s offering of full tuition to students with a family annual income of under $160,000. This upward economic mobility is corroborated: poor students who attend top colleges earn as much as their rich classmates. Oh, and there will be plenty of rich classmates – 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, had more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60%.

The greatest takeaway from the 2019 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings is that students who meet rigorous academic expectations and requirements and attend the nation’s 'best' universities will be rewarded handsomely – something definitely worth pursuing.

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