How U.S. News Calculated the Best Colleges Rankings

There are plenty of reasons students attend a particular college or university. But the top ones, according to several different surveys, like Why Higher Ed? by Strada and Gallup and Factors That Influence Student College Choice by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, relate to academic reputation, cost of attending and return on investment.

Taking this into account, U.S. News & World Report made refinements to this year’s rankings formula by dropping five longstanding factors, modifying the weights of several other factors, and introducing a few new ones. We increased the emphasis on how often schools’ students from all socioeconomic backgrounds earned degrees and took advantage of information on graduate outcomes that was not available until recently. As in past years, changes in methodology, together with changes in individual schools’ data, can result in significant changes to schools’ rankings.

The underlying data used to compute these measures was collected from third-party sources (see the “Data Sources” section below), and oftentimes reported directly by schools to U.S. News in alignment with what they recently reported to the government and/or following Common Data Set (CDS) initiative guidance.

U.S. News evaluated nearly 1,500 U.S. four-year bachelor’s degree-granting institutions on as many as 19 measures for its 39th rankings edition. These statistics only pertain to measures reflecting academic quality and graduate outcomes – factors that are universally important to prospective students. But also important are considerations that vary person-to-person, like campus culture, strength in specific majors and financial aid offered. To account for this, U.S. News supplements its overall rankings with specialized subject and cost-oriented rankings, customizable search tools, education journalism, and a detailed school directory with exclusive academic and nonacademic information.

In short, the rankings should be used as a tool for discovering the best fit schools; combined with personal considerations and additional resources.

As always, schools’ eligibility to be ranked was not contingent on their participation in U.S. News’ surveys. But the vast majority of schools U.S. News surveyed did report data to U.S. News – including 99 of the top 100 ranked National Universities and 97 of the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges.

To be ranked, institutions had to meet the following conditions: have regional accreditation, be included in Carnegie’s Basic classification but not designated as a “highly specialized” school, enroll at least 100 undergraduate students, have reported financial expenditures data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) finance survey, and have reported a six-year graduation rate of full-time, first-year bachelor’s degree-seeking students in recent years. Surveyed schools not passing all of these criteria are listed as unranked.

Institutions were not surveyed nor listed in the Best Colleges directory if they lacked accreditation, lacked first-year students or were entirely distance education, although accredited distance education degree programs were surveyed for U.S. News’ Best Online Bachelor’s Programs rankings.

  • National Universities offer a range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and emphasize faculty research or award professional practice doctorates.
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education and award at least 50% of their degrees in the arts and sciences.
  • Regional Universities offer a broad scope of undergraduate degrees and some master’s degree programs but few, if any, doctoral programs. We ranked them in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.
  • Regional Colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50% of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. Some regional colleges award two-year associate degrees as well as bachelor’s degrees. We ranked them in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.

The above were mapped for the second consecutive year with The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s 2021 update to its Basic Classification system (see details here).

Within each ranking, there were ranking factors – outlined below – for which each eligible school was scored on the underlying data. These scores were standardized (z-scored) so they were compared with the means and standard deviations among all other ranked schools. In other words, the distance between two schools on any ranking factor is not determined by how their data compare head-to-head so much as how their data compared with every ranked school.

Next, the standardized values were weighted and totaled to determine the overall score from which the rankings were derived. The overall scores were rescaled so that the top performer(s) in each ranking displays an overall score of 100. Others’ overall scores are on a 0-99 scale reflecting the distance from their ranking’s top-performing school(s). Those placing outside the top 90% are still ranked but display their ranking’s bottom decile range (e.g., No. 118-130) instead of their individual ranks (e.g., No. 126); this is a change from previous years when the top 75% were numerically ranked and the bottom 25% were in the ranking range.

The Ranking Factors

More than half of a school’s rank is now comprised of varying outcome measures related to schools’ success at enrolling, retaining and graduating students from different backgrounds with manageable debt and post-graduate success.

Graduation rates (16%, down from 17.6%) is a four-year rolling average of the proportion of each entering class (fall 2013-fall 2016) earning a bachelor’s degree in six years or less.

First-year retention rates (5%, up from 4.4%) is a four-year rolling average of the proportions of first-year entering students (fall 2018-fall 2021) who returned the following fall.

Graduation rate performance (10%, up from 8%) is a four-year rolling average comparing each college’s six-year graduation rates with what we predicted for their fall 2013 through fall 2016 entering classes, based on each school’s characteristics. The more a school’s actual graduation rate exceeded its predicted graduation rate, the more it exceeded expectations – and scored higher on this indicator. The predicted rates were modeled from students’ socioeconomic backgrounds – namely those awarded Pell Grants (low-income household) and who were first in their families to attend college (first generation), as well as admissions data, school financial resources, and National Universities’ math and science orientations.

Social mobility, which is part of U.S. News’ outcomes measures, assessed how well schools graduated economically disadvantaged students. The ranking factors – which feed standalone Top Performers On Social Mobility rankings – were computed by aggregating two to four ranking factors assessing graduation rates of Pell-awarded students and, for the National Universities rankings only, first generation students. First generation graduation rates of federal loan recipients are sourced by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard and were only incorporated in the National Universities rankings because schools’ smaller student cohorts among baccalaureate and regional schools resulted in some of their data being suppressed in the dataset.

  • Pell graduation rates (3% in National Universities and 5.5% in other rankings; all up from 2.5%) is a four-year rolling average that incorporates six-year bachelor’s degree-seeking graduation rates of Pell Grant students from the fall 2013 through fall 2016 entering classes, adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions.
  • Pell graduation performance (3% in National Universities and 5.5% in other rankings; all up from 2.5%) compares each school’s six-year bachelor’s degree-seeking graduation rate among Pell recipients with its six-year graduation rates among non-Pell recipients, then adjusts to give significantly more credit to schools who enrolled larger Pell student proportions. The higher a school’s Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate up to the rates being equal, the better it scores. This, too, is computed as a four-year rolling average from the fall 2013-fall 2016 entering classes.
  • First generation graduation rates (2.5% in National Universities, new) is the same calculation as Pell graduation rates, but based on graduation rates of federal loan recipients who were first in their families to attend college, entering fall 2011 through fall 2013.
  • First generation graduation performance (2.5% in National Universities, new) is the same calculation as Pell graduation performance, but based on graduation rates of first generation federal loan recipients entering fall 2011 through fall 2013. For more information on first generation graduation, see the article, “A More Detailed Look at the Ranking Factors.”

Borrower debt (5%; up from 3%) assesses each school’s typical average accumulated federal loan debt among borrowers only. Graduates who covered their expenses without borrowing did not help or hurt schools. New this edition, the data was sourced from College Scorecard instead of the U.S. News survey for all schools, and was of median debt instead of mean debt. The calculation averaged 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 data.

College grads earning more than a high school graduate (5%, new) assessed the proportion of a school’s federal loan recipients who in 2019-2020 – four years since completing their undergraduate degrees – were earning more than a typical high school graduate salary, as determined by and reported in the College Scorecard. The website documented that the median wage of workers ages 25-34 that self-identify as high school graduates was $32,000 in 2021 dollars. This means the vast majority of jobs utilizing a college degree, even including those not chosen for being in high-paying fields, exceed this threshold. Schools were assigned a perfect score if at least 90% of graduates achieved this threshold, and the remaining schools were assessed by how close they were to 90%. The data only pertained to employed college graduates; meaning nongraduates, or graduates who four years later were in graduate school, working part-time or simply not in the workforce did not help or hurt any school. For more information, see the article, “A More Detailed Look at the Ranking Factors.”

Peer Assessment (20%, unchanged)

Academic reputation matters because it factors things that cannot easily be captured elsewhere. For example, an institution known for having innovative approaches to teaching may perform especially well on this indicator, whereas a school struggling to keep its accreditation will likely perform poorly.

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. Those who don’t know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark “don’t know.”

U.S. News collected the most recent data by administering peer assessment surveys to schools in spring and summer 2023. Of the 4,734 academics who were sent questionnaires on the overall rankings in 2023, 30.8% responded compared with 34.1% in 2022. The peer assessment response rate for the National Universities category was 44% and the National Liberal Arts category was 28.6%.

Whether a school submitted a peer assessment survey or statistical survey had no impact on the average peer score it received from other schools. However, this year nonresponders to the statistical survey who submitted peer surveys had their ratings of other schools excluded from the computations.

Schools interested in a breakdown of their peer assessment ratings by respondent type and region can access this information, along with 29 million other data points, with a subscription to U.S. News’ Academic Insights. This web-based platform facilitates a deep dive for studying and benchmarking the rankings and is designed for colleges and universities only.

Research shows the greater access students have to quality instructors, the more engaged they will be in class and the more they will learn and be satisfied with their instructors. U.S. News uses three factors from the 2022-2023 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction. Their weights are each lower for National Universities than other rankings to make room for the new faculty research ranking factors.

  • Faculty salaries (6% in National Universities, 8% in other rankings; all changed from 7%) assesses the average salaries, excluding benefits, for full-time instructional professors, associate professors and assistant professors using definitions from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Salary data was adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living using the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis regional price parities indexes, published in December 2022. A change this year was salaries of full-time instructional faculty categorized as either instructors, having no rank or lecturers were added to the mix of faculty for a more comprehensive measure of the staff teaching students than if only professors’ salaries were considered.
  • Student-faculty ratio (3% in National Universities, 4% in other rankings; all changed from 1%) is the ratio of undergraduate students to instructional faculty.
  • Full-time faculty (2% in National Universities, 3% in all other rankings; all changed from 1%) compares the counts of full-time faculty to part-time faculty who are teaching courses, with a higher proportion of faculty teaching full-time receiving credit.

Financial resources (8%, down from 10%): Generous per-student academic spending indicates a college can offer a variety of programs and services. U.S. News measures financial resources by using the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2021 fiscal year. Expenditures were compared with fall 2020 full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate enrollment. New for this edition for all schools, U.S. News only used FY2021 financial resources data sourced directly from the U.S. Department of Education to ensure more standardized reporting among schools. Previously this indicator had used a two-year average.

Standardized tests (5%, unchanged): U.S. News factors median test scores for all enrollees who submitted scores used in the admission process for the mathematics and evidence-based reading and writing portions of the SAT and the composite ACT. Both SATs and ACTs were converted to their 0-100 test-taker percentile distributions and weighted based on the proportions of new entrants submitting each exam. For example, if a school had two-thirds of its test-takers submitting ACT scores and one-third submitting SAT scores, its ACT scores would weigh twice as heavily as its SAT scores toward this ranking factor.

For the second year, the following two-year approach to the methodology was in effect:

  • By default, we assessed schools on their fall 2022 SAT/ACT scores if they were reported on at least half their new entrants.
  • For schools not meeting the first condition, we assessed them on their fall 2021 SAT/ACT scores (scaled to fall 2021 percentile distributions) only if they were reported on at least half their fall 2021 new entrants.
  • For schools reporting SAT/ACT on less than 50% of both their fall 2022 and fall 2021 entering classes – including test-blind schools – we did not assess them on standardized tests at all. Instead, for those schools we increased the weights of graduation rates an additional five percentage points, from 16% to 21%. This substitute was chosen because it was the statistic from the rankings formula that correlated closest to standardized tests.

Given the growth of test-optional admissions, we discontinued our prior practice of discounting schools that categorically excluded varying groups of students in reporting.

Faculty research (National Universities only): To be grouped in the National Universities ranking, an institution must be classified in the Carnegie Classifications as awarding doctorate-level degrees and conducting at least “moderate research.” In alignment with these schools’ missions, U.S. News introduced four new faculty research ranking factors based on bibliometric data, such as publications and citations, in partnership with Elsevier. They each reflect a five-year window from 2018-2022 as well as the strength and impact of the faculty instead of the scale of the university.

  • Citations per publication (1.25%) is total citations divided by total publications. This is the average number of citations a university’s publications receive. The metrics are extracted from SciVal based on Elsevier’s Scopus® Data.
  • Field weighted citation impact (1.25%) is citation impact per paper, normalized for each field. The metrics are extracted from SciVal based on Elsevier’s Scopus® Data.
  • The share of publications cited in the top 5% of the most cited journals (1%). The metrics are extracted from SciVal based on Elsevier’s Scopus® Data.
  • The share of publications cited in the top 25% of the most cited journals (0.5%). The metrics are extracted from SciVal based on Elsevier’s Scopus® Data.

Universities with fewer than 5,000 total publications over five years were discounted on a sliding scale to reduce outliers based on small cohort sizes, and to require a minimum quantity of research to score well on the factor. Each indicator is calculated at the school level.

Elsevier, a global leader in information and analytics, helps researchers and health care professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society. It does this by facilitating insights and critical decision-making for customers across the global research and health ecosystems. To learn more, visit its website.

Eliminated Rankings Factors

Five ranking factors totaling 18% of the previous edition’s rankings were removed from the formula completely. These factors and their corresponding weights last year were class size (8%), the proportion of a school’s faculty with terminal degrees (3%), alumni giving rate (3%), the proportion of graduates borrowing (2%) and high school class standing (2%). Although each of these statistics adhered to industry standard definitions from the Common Data Set and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), they were not collected or computed by the U.S. Department of Education and therefore not as universally reported by schools. Some of these statistics had growing logistical issues that made them more challenging than in previous years to continue incorporating into the rankings. Learn more about these changes in the Morse Code.

Several ranking factors above used data schools reported directly in U.S. News’ surveys, enabling U.S. News to incorporate statistics not yet available from external sources.

New this year, U.S. News elected to only use ranking factors in which a related third-party sourced value was typically obtainable when schools failed to provide adequate data for a given ranking factor or declined to submit our survey altogether. For missing U.S. News statistical survey data, one-year or older data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics was substituted, using its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data center tool.

Data pertaining to fall 2021 cohorts and FY2021 data from IPEDS uses its provisional data release. According to the IPEDS methodology, the data undergoes an initial review and validation process, including following up with institutions. However, the provisional data has not been extensively reviewed or edited. In contrast, earlier data U.S. News applies to the rankings – such as those used in multi-year averages – are from the IPEDS final data, from which institutions may revise their data should an error be detected by the institution.

Data for the rankings not collected in U.S. News’ surveys or downloaded from IPEDS were either supplied directly to U.S. News by Elsevier or downloaded from College Scorecard. This online tool run by the U.S. Department of Education houses a repository of publicly downloadable federal data on higher education institutions, including statistics on the outcomes of federal student loan recipients from the National Student Loan Data System.

For every ranking factor that averaged statistics across multiple years’ reporting, U.S. News only incorporated data available. For example, if only three years of graduation rate data for a school were available, U.S. News calculated its average graduation rate based on three years instead of the default amount of four years.

In infrequent cases when data for a ranking factor was not available to U.S. News at all, U.S. News imputed values depending upon circumstance.

U.S. News’ Data Collection

This year, 79.9% (a slight decline compared to 83.5% last year) of the nearly 1,500 ranked institutions in the overall ranking returned their statistical information in the spring and summer of 2023. In total, U.S. News has collected data on more than 1,800 institutions. While data for all schools appears on, nearly 1,500 schools were ranked.

For ease of comprehension, data on the U.S. News website and materials provided to schools in many cases display a statistic used in the rankings computations – typically from the most recent cohort year – and not the final transformed values produced for the rankings.

Many of the reporting instructions in U.S. News’s surveys were from the 2022-2023 Common Data Set – a collaborative effort between publishers and higher education, of which U.S. News is a participant. The CDS questions on faculty often align with those from the American Association of University Professors, which collect more refined, relevant faculty data than what is available from other sources. For example, the faculty data schools report to the federal government include preclinical and clinical medicine faculty, whereas the CDS/AAUP-aligned data reported to U.S. News excluded such faculty who typically have limited interaction with undergraduates. The CDS also includes many standardized questions about school characteristics that help populate U.S. News’ directory and inform school choice beyond the rankings.

For ranking factors on U.S. News’ surveys involving finance, enrollment, graduation and retention rates, the CDS definitions match those from IPEDS.

The one ranking factor in which U.S. News this year deviated from CDS standards was with SAT/ACT scores. For this edition, U.S. News instructed schools to report following the government’s definition of only including new entrants who submitted scores used toward admissions decisions. This change was to ensure schools following CDS definitions were not disadvantaged for reporting on a broader pool of applicants who had taken standardized tests but did not want them considered.

While U.S. News relies on schools to accurately report their data, we take steps to review its accuracy.

For quality assurance, data schools reported to U.S. News was algorithmically compared with their previous year’s submissions to detect possible inaccuracies. Respondents were required to review, possibly revise and verify any flagged data before they could submit their surveys, as well as explain in writing any large changes. They were also instructed to have a top academic official sign off on the accuracy of the data. Schools that declined this last step could still be ranked, but display a footnote on their profile on

U.S. News assessed the data submitted on a factor-by-factor level and contacted select schools to confirm or revise data. This process compared schools’ data with third-party data when available, as well as submissions from other ranked schools and the school’s own previous submissions. Schools that did not respond or were unable to confirm their data’s accuracy may have had the data in question unpublished and not used in the calculations. Altogether, U.S. News made updates to more than 100 indicator values pertaining to several dozens of schools, post data collection. If after the rankings are published U.S. News is made aware of a school ranked higher than it should be based on misreported data, that school is removed from the rankings until the next release.

Our mission in creating the Best Colleges rankings is to serve the best interests of students and their families and to do so, we, like other reputable journalists, are editorially independent of our employer’s business operations. A school’s license of a “Best Colleges” badge or its purchase of advertising or other products from U.S. News does not affect whether that school is ranked, either currently or in the future, and, if ranked, whether it is ranked higher or lower.

Check out throughout the year, as we may get new information and add to the Best Colleges rankings. And as you mine these tables for insights – where you might win some merit aid, for example, or where you will be apt to get the most attention from professors – keep in mind that they provide a launching pad, not an easy answer.