U.S. News & World Report College Rankings: Reading Between the Numbers

U.S. News & World Report College Rankings:

Reading Between the Numbers


You’ve undoubtedly heard of the U.S. News & World Report’s list of the “best” colleges and universities. It comes out every single year, and it ranks America’s colleges and universities using measures like graduation rates, assessments by students and faculty, alumni giving, acceptance rates, and so on. Predictably, institutions like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale grace the top of this list year after year. If we take a closer look and read between the numbers, however, just how “accurate” is this list? More importantly, what does it actually mean to you?


U.S. News decides which aspects of a college or university matter, and how much they matter. 

According to the official website, “U.S. News gathers data from each college on up to 15 indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is assigned a weight that reflects U.S. News’ judgment about how much that measure matters.” In other words, U.S. News has decides what matters in a school, but it may not be what actually matters to you.

The U.S. News college rankings are broken down like this:

  • Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5%)

U.S. News surveys academics at universities and high school counselors to determine this score. Per the U.S News website, this measures the “intangibles” at these institutions. Basically, this score is all about which schools have the best reputations among their peers.

  • Faculty resources (20%)

This score is determined by class sizes at the schools (the smaller the better), the salaries of faculty, the degrees held by faculty, the student-faculty ratio, and the proportion of faculty who work full-time for the school.

  • Student selectivity (12.5%)

This score comes from the SAT and ACT test scores of admitted students, the proportion of students who graduated in the top 10% of their class, and the school’s acceptance rate.

  • Financial resources (10%)

This score is determined by, “the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services, and related educational expenditures.”

  • Graduation rate performance (7.5%)

This score is determined by U.S. News comparing the expected graduation rate to the actual graduation rate of students at each university.

  • Alumni giving rate (5%)

This last score is determined by the percentage of alumni with bachelor’s degrees who donate to the school.

While these measures are surely well researched and carefully decided upon, they don’t necessarily align with your personal views. For example, you might not care how much the professors make, what kind of reputation the school has, or the acceptance rate. You might care enormously about the geographic location and the majors offered. Remember to rank schools by your own measures!


Schools know how to work the system to get ahead.

When I was a junior in high school, the college brochures started flooding in. My heart skipped a beat when I received letters from schools like Harvard and Columbia – they like me… they really like me! Well, maybe. More likely, they just wanted me to apply. Think about it: the more students who apply to their institution, the more they get to reject. The more they get to reject, the more competitive their admission rate, and the higher their U.S. News ranking. You just have to remember that at the end of the day, these schools are businesses, and they will mass market like the best of them.

This is just one example of universities working the system. If a university wants to rank higher on the list, they’ll throw more money at the factors that U.S. News has deemed important. Even worse, some schools will actually lie about the numbers altogether. In 2012, a college in California admitted they had been sending in false SAT scores for six years.


The list rewards schools that spend more money, which typically means the students ends up paying higher tuition.

As we stated above, U.S. News gives higher scores to schools that pay their faculty well and spend a lot of money on their students. That can make for a fantastic academic environment, but it also probably means steep tuition. In fact, the U.S. News college rankings can actually make tuition climb as colleges put more money into things that will improve their standings.

Take a look at some of the top-ranked schools, and you’re probably also looking at some of the country’s most expensive. Keep that in mind.


The biggest factor in the U.S. News college rankings is objective.

We stated this already, but 22.5% of an institution’s overall ranking is based on its reputation. High school counselors and college academics are asked to rank schools they might not know much about, and then rank schools like M.I.T. and Stanford. In many ways, it’s a popularity contest that creates self-fulfilling prophecies. The schools that top this well-known list keep up their great reputations, guaranteeing they keep getting high “reputation” scores in the future.


We certainly aren’t saying this list is worthless, or that you must ignore it completely. However, it IS important to understand how these rankings are determined. Remember, there is no “perfect” school, but there is a perfect school for YOU!