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  • Writer's pictureDina

Understanding College Rankings

A week ago, UC Berkeley, one of the top public universities and the most prestigious engineering schools, was removed from the US News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking due to misreporting statistics on alumni donation. Along with UCB, Scripps College, Mars Hill College, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, and Johnson & Wales University have been moved to the unranked category for submitting the incorrect data.

While the public is still astonished by how much the universities care about the rankings and why they are willing to take the risk of misreporting data, it’s a chance for us to look into how different college-ranking websites work and how to make the most of it.

US News Best Colleges

The rankings, America’s Best Colleges, first came out in 1983 and are considered the most comprehensive rankings out there as “the editors of the U.S. News believe that students and their families should have as much information as possible.” The criteria include:

Graduation and Retention Rate: 22%

Social Mobility: 5%

Graduation Rate Performance: 8%

Undergraduate Academic Reputation: 20%

Faculty Resources: 20%

Student Selectivity: 10%

Financial Resources per Student: 10%

Average Alumni Giving Rate: 5%

The rankings are heavily based on academic performance and resources of the school with the consideration of other areas such as peer survey and reputation. If you are into research, this is the ranking site you will find handy.

Princeton Review

Unlike the UC News & World Report, the Princeton Review started as a test-prep company. The role of a well-known publisher of test-prep materials allows Princeton Review to gain sufficient access to students’ information. Their Best 385 Collegesare based on the surveys of 140,000 students; each of them needs to answer 80 questions that fall into four categories:

School’s Academics/Administration

Student Life

Their Fellow Students


What’s particular about the rankings is that they do not have a list of “best overall.” Instead, students can find the top 20 schools for 62 different categories such as Classroom Experience and Extracurriculars. Therefore, the Princeton Review provides us a student-oriented ranking system focusing on a variety of areas, which has made it one of the most popular ranking sites in the US.

Times Higher Education

THE offers a widely used college ranking site, not only nationally but also internationally. Besides the colleges in the US, they also rank the schools overseas—Latin America, Asia, and even Japan-only. In terms of methodology, it’s considered balanced and based on “what makes a university truly world-class.” The criteria include:

Teaching (learning environment): 30%

Citation (research influence): 30%

Research (volume, income, reputation): 30%

International Outlook (staff, students, research): 7.5%

Industry Income (knowledge transfer): 2.5%

Apparently, the THE ranking emphasizes the teaching and research even more, compared to the US News. A creative college ranking list is the THE Young University Rankings, which only looks into the institutions under 50 years old. These schools are, in general, relatively less competitive than the ones with centuries of history. For students who are looking for new schools with greater potential, this will be helpful.


There is a unique ranking system out there by PayScale, College Rankings by Salary Potential. Just as suggested by the name, it measures the financial power based on your school, major, and degree. Students can find schools with the highest earning with a bachelor degree (regardless of the major) as well as the best schools for a specific major by salary potential. Guess which school is ranked #1 for business majors by salary potential? United States Military Academy.

It’s straightforward: if you would like to put more weight on your future earning after graduating when choosing colleges, this is the place for you.


Similar to most ranking sites, Niche considers numbers of factors and aims to build a comprehensive method of evaluation. The weights of Academics, Value (loan, earning), Professors are 40%, 27.5%, and 7.5%, respectively; they also put smaller weights (2.5% -- 5%) on Campus, Diversity, Student Life, Students’ Overall Experience, Local Area, and Safety.

However, the sources of data suggest that though there are pieces from the accredited sources such as the US Department of Education and US Census, they still rely on the self-reports from students and users. In other words, it’s a list based on the point of view of the users.

What’s good about Niche is that you can read the reviews from the users for each college on the website. Future applicants can take advantage of this and gain a closer look at the schools for which they would like to apply.

In reality, “top schools“ don’t change much, regardless of ranking systems. This reflects the fact that those schools usually have strengths in the areas which are typically measured by these systems, such as endowment funds available per student or staff ratios. For your own purposes, if you are going to refer to a rankings system, be prepared to understand what are the strengths of each. When you are actually making a college list for yourself (or as a parent, with your child), your needs will dictate how many schools from any ranking system end up on the list.


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