College and university rankings in the United States

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College and university rankings in the United States are rankings of U.S. colleges and universities based on factors that vary depending on the ranking. Rankings are typically conducted by magazines, newspapers, websites, or academics. The most popular and influential set of rankings is published by U.S. News & World Report. In addition to ranking entire institutions, specific programs, departments, and schools can be ranked. Some rankings consider measures of wealth, research excellence, selectivity, and alumni success. There is much debate about rankings' interpretation, accuracy, and usefulness.

Academic Influence rankings[edit]

Academic Influence's rankings of colleges, universities, and disciplinary programs began as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative for ranking persons according to their areas of influence. By then associating influential people with their academic affiliations, Academic Influence was able to induce rankings of higher education institutions.[1]

In ranking people and institutions by influence, Academic Influence uses a machine-learning technology implemented by its InfluenceRanking engine.[2] As a consequence, all its influence-based rankings occur without human intervention but instead are algorithmically driven. Academic Influence thereby claims to produce college and university rankings that are not only objective and unbiased, but also non-gameable (features it argues should be present in school rankings but are largely absent from them).[3]

In ranking undergraduate institutions, Academic Influence argues that the best metric for doing so is not influence per se but what it calls “concentrated influence,” which normalizes influence by size of the undergraduate student body. The idea is that larger schools will naturally acquire more influence, and thus rank more highly, simply in virtue of their size. Concentrated influence, by controlling for size, attempts to correct for this imbalance.[4]

Academic Influence’s top schools for undergraduates as gauged by concentrated influence are as follows.[5] Note that Swarthmore appears not only in the best liberal arts ranking but also in the best overall ranking because even though it is much smaller than Duke or Northwestern, its concentrated influence, by controlling for size, makes it comparable to those schools. Note also that Caltech rises to the top of the best overall ranking because of its enormous influence in relation to its very small size for a research university (its undergraduate body is less than 1,000).

Best colleges and universities[6] Rank Best liberal arts colleges[7] Rank
Caltech  1 Swarthmore College 1
Harvard University  2 Amherst College 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology  3 Sarah Lawrence College  3
Stanford University  4 Reed College 4
University of Chicago  5 Barnard College 5
Princeton University  6 Wesleyan University 6
Columbia University  7 Vassar College 7
Yale University  8 Hampshire College 8
Johns Hopkins University  9 Wellesley College 9
Duke University  10 Williams College 10
Swarthmore College  11 Cooper Union 11
Northwestern University  12 Pomona College 12

Council for Aid to Education[edit]

The Council for Aid to Education publishes a list of the top universities in terms of annual fundraising. Fundraising ability reflects, among other things, alumni and outside donors' views of the quality of a university, as well as the ability of that university to expend funds on top faculty and facilities. 2017 rankings list the top 3 as Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell.[8]

Forbes college rankings[edit]

In 2008, Forbes began publishing an annual list of "America's Best Colleges."[9] Post-graduate success (self-reported salaries of alumni from PayScale and data from the Department of Education) constitutes 35% of the score. Student debt loads constitute 20% of the score. Student experience (retention rates reported by the Department of Education and data from Niche) constitutes 20% of the score. Graduation rates constitute 12.5% of the score. Academic success (using both the percentage of a school's student body that goes on to obtain doctorate degrees and those students who have won one of a diverse array of prestigious academic awards) constitutes 12.5%. Public reputation is not considered, which causes some colleges to score lower than in other lists. A three-year moving average is used to smooth out the scoring.

Forbes rated Princeton the country’s best college in its inaugural (2008) list.[10] West Point took the top honor the following year.[11] Williams College was ranked first both in 2010 and 2011, and Princeton returned to the top spot in 2012.[12][13][14] In 2013 and 2016, Stanford occupied the No. 1 spot, with elite liberal arts schools Williams and Pomona College topping the rankings in the intervening years.[15][16][17][18][19][20] Since 2017, the magazine has ranked Harvard as the best college in America.

America’s Top Colleges (Top 20)[21][22][23]
Institution 3yr.Avg. 2017 2018 2019
Harvard University 1 1 1 1
Stanford University 2 2 3 2
Yale University 3 3 2 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4 5 4 4
Princeton University 5 4 5 5
University of Pennsylvania 7 7 7 6
Brown University 8 9 8 7
California Institute of Technology 7 6 6 8
Duke University 9 8 10 9
Dartmouth College 10 12 9 10
Cornell University 13 15 13 11
Pomona College 14 10 19 12
University of California, Berkeley 19 29 14 13
Columbia University 14 14 15 14
Georgetown University 16 21 12 15
University of Chicago 17 16 18 16
Northwestern University 22 28 20 17
University of Notre Dame 22 26 21 18
Williams College 14 13 11 19
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 27 38 22 20

Niche rankings[edit]

Niche's Best Colleges ranking focuses on academics, diversity, affordability, and student satisfaction.[24]

University College Ranking
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1
Harvard University 2
Stanford University 3
Yale University 4
Duke University 5
Princeton University 6
Rice University 7
California Institute of Technology 8
Brown University 9
University of Pennsylvania 10

The Princeton Review Dream Colleges[edit]

The Princeton Review annually asks students and parents what their dream college is, if cost and ability to get in were not factors.[25]

University Students' Dream
College Ranking
Stanford University 1
Harvard University 2
University of California, Los Angeles 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 4
New York University 5
Princeton University 6
Columbia University 7
Yale University 8
University of Michigan 9
University of California, Berkeley 10
University Parents' Dream
College Ranking
Stanford University 1
Princeton University 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3
Harvard University 4
New York University 5
University of Pennsylvania 6
University of Michigan 7
Duke University 8
University of California, Los Angeles 9
Cornell University 10

QS World University Rankings: USA[edit]

Since 2020, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) has published an annual ranking of universities in the United States with a separate methodology from their annual international university rankings. The metrics for the USA rankings are employability, learning experience, diversity & internationalization, and research.[26]

University 2021 Rank
Harvard University 1
Stanford University 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3
University of California, Berkeley 4
University of California, Los Angeles 5
Yale University 6
Columbia University 7
Princeton University 8
New York University (NYU) 9
University of Pennsylvania 10

Social Mobility Index (SMI) rankings[edit]

The SMI rankings are a collaborative publication from CollegeNet and PayScale. The rankings aim to provide a measure of the extent to which colleges provide upward economic mobility to those that attend. The rankings were created in response to the finding in Science magazine which showed that among developed nations, the United States now provides the least economic opportunity and mobility for its citizens. The rankings were also created to combat the rising costs of tuition, much of which is attributed to the efforts of some colleges to increase their own fame and wealth in ways that increase their rank in media periodicals that put an emphasis on such measures. In 2014, according to the SMI, the top five colleges are Montana Tech, Rowan University, Florida A&M, Cal Poly Pomona, and Cal State Northridge.[27]

The Top American Research Universities[edit]

The Center for Measuring University Performance has ranked American research universities in the Top American Research Universities since 2000. The methodology is based on data such as research publications, citations, recognitions and funding, as well as undergraduate quality such as SAT scores. The information used can be found in publicly accessible materials, reducing possibilities for manipulation. The methodology is generally consistent from year to year and changes are explained in the publication along with references from other studies.[28]

U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Ranking[edit]

The top 10 national universities (red ) and liberal arts colleges (blue ) in the U.S. News rankings, as of 2020

In 1983, U.S. News & World Report published its first "America's Best Colleges" report. The rankings have been compiled and published annually since 1985 and are the most widely quoted of their kind in the United States.[29]

The rankings are split into four categories: National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges, with the latter two categories further split into North, South, Midwest, and West. The rankings are based upon data that U.S. News & World Report collects from an annual survey sent to each school, as well as opinion surveys of faculty members and administrators from other schools. The publication's methodology was created by Robert Morse, who continues to oversee its application as chief data strategist.[30]

The rankings are popular with the general public (for their 2014 release,[needs update] garnered 2.6 million unique visitors and 18.9 million page views in one day[31]), and influence high school seniors' application patterns (a 2011 study found that a one-rank improvement leads to a 0.9% increase in number of applicants[32]). However, they have been widely denounced by many higher education experts. Detractors argue that they ignore individual fit by comparing institutions with widely diverging missions on the same scale,[33] imply a false precision by deriving an ordinal ranking from questionable data,[34] encourage gamesmanship by institutions looking to improve their rank,[35] and contribute to the admissions frenzy by unduly highlighting prestige.[36]

In addition to the rankings, U.S. News & World Report also publishes college guides in book form,[37] and ranks American graduate schools and academic programs in a number of specific disciplines, including business, law, engineering, nursing, and medicine.[38]
Top national universities[39] 2022 rank Top liberal arts colleges[40] 2022 rank
Princeton University 1 Williams College 1
Columbia University 2 Amherst College 2
Harvard University 2 Swarthmore College 3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2 Pomona College 4
Yale University 5 Wellesley College 5
Stanford University 6 Bowdoin College 6
University of Chicago 6 United States Naval Academy 6
University of Pennsylvania 8 Claremont McKenna College 8
California Institute of Technology 9 Carleton College 9
Duke University 9 Middlebury College 9
Johns Hopkins University 9 United States Military Academy 11
Northwestern University 9 Washington and Lee University 11
Dartmouth College 13 Davidson College 13
Brown University 14 Grinnell College 13
Vanderbilt University 14 Hamilton College 13
Washington University in St. Louis 14 Haverford College 16
Cornell University 17 Barnard College 17
Rice University 17 Colby College 17
University of Notre Dame 19 Colgate University 17
University of California, Los Angeles 20 Smith College 17
Wesleyan University 17

The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings[edit]

The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education together release an annual ranking of U.S. colleges and universities. The ranking includes performance indicators such as teaching resources, academic reputation, and postgraduate prospects.[41] The 2021 ranking is listed below:[42]

University Rank
Harvard University 1
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2
Yale University 3
Stanford University 4
Brown University 5 tied
Duke University 5 tied
California Institute of Technology 7 tied
Princeton University 7 tied
Cornell University 9
Northwestern University 10

Washington Monthly Rankings[edit]

Washington Monthly's rankings began as a research report in 2005, with rankings appearing in the September 2006 issue.[43]

Their top universities are:[44]

Top national universities[44] Rank Top liberal arts colleges[45] Rank
Stanford University  1 Harvey Mudd College 1
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2 Wesleyan University 2
Duke University 3 Pomona College  3
University of Wisconsin-Madison  4 Williams College 4
Harvard University 5 Grinnell College 5
University of Pennsylvania  6 Amherst College 6
Johns Hopkins University  7 Middlebury College 7
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign  8 Bowdoin College 8
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 9 Carleton College 9
University of California, Berkeley 10 Smith College 10

"What will they Learn?" Report - American Council of Trustees and Alumni[edit]

In 2009, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) began grading colleges and universities based on the strength of their general education requirements. In ACTA's annual What Will They Learn? report, colleges and universities are assigned a letter grade from "A" to "F" based on how many of seven subjects are required of students. The seven subjects are composition, mathematics, foreign language, science, economics, literature and American government or history.[46] The 2011–2012 edition of What Will They Learn? graded 1,007 institutions.[47] In the 2011–2012 edition, 19 schools received an "A" grade for requiring at least six of the subjects the study evaluated.[48] ACTA's rating system has been endorsed by Mel Elfin, founding editor of U.S. News & World Report's rankings.[49] The New York Times higher education blogger Stanley Fish, while agreeing that universities ought to have a strong core curriculum, disagreed with some of the subjects ACTA includes in the core.[50]

Other rankings[edit]

Other rankings include the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Money, and Business Insider. Many specialized rankings are available in guidebooks, considering individual student interests, fields of study, geographical location, and affordability. In addition to best overall colleges ranking shown above, Niche also publishes dozens of specialized rankings such as Best Academics, Best Campus Food, Most Conservative Colleges, and Best Technology.

Among the rankings dealing with individual fields of study is the Philosophical Gourmet Report or "Leiter Report",[51] a ranking of philosophy departments. This report has attracted criticism from different viewpoints. Notably, practitioners of continental philosophy, who perceive the Leiter report as unfair to their field, have compiled alternative rankings.

The Gourman Report, last published in 1996, ranked the quality of undergraduate majors and graduate programs. The Daily Beast has also, in the past, published rankings. In 2015, The Economist published a one-time ranking emphasizing the difference between the expected and actual earnings of alumni.

The Higher Education Rankings, developed and managed by the New York City consulting company IV Research, is a commercial product that provides both general rankings as well as personalized rankings based on a complicated assessment of 6 criteria and 30 indicators.[52]

Gallup polls ask American adults, "All in all, what would you say is the best college or university in the United States?"[53]

Global Language Monitor produces a "TrendTopper MediaBuzz" ranking of the Top 300 United States colleges and universities semi-annually.[54] It publishes overall results for both university and college categories. It uses the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's classifications to distinguish between universities and liberal arts colleges. The rankings list 125 universities, 100 colleges, the change in the rankings over time, a "Predictive Quantities Indicator" (PQI) Index number (for relative rankings), rankings by Momentum (yearly and 90-day snapshots), and rankings by State. The most recent ranking appeared on November 1, 2009, covering 2008. The PQI index is produced by Global Language Monitor's proprietary PQI algorithm,[55] which has been criticized by some linguists for its use in a counting of the total number of English words.[56][57][58][59] The Global Language Monitor also sells the TrendTopper MediaBuzz Reputation Management solution[buzzword] for higher education for which "colleges and universities can enhance their standings among peers".[60] The Global Language Monitor states that it "does not influence the Higher Education rankings in any way".[61]

The Princeton Review annually publishes a book of Best Colleges. In 2011, this was titled The Best 373 Colleges. Phi Beta Kappa has also sought to establish chapters at the best schools, lately numbering 280.[62]

In terms of collegiate sports programs, the annual NACDA Directors' Cup provides a measure of all-around collegiate athletic team achievement. Stanford has won the Division I Directors' cup for the last 22 years in a row.[63]


American college and university ranking systems have drawn criticism from within and outside higher education in Canada and the United States. Institutions that have objected include Reed College, Alma College, Mount Holyoke College, St. John's College, Earlham College, MIT, Stanford University, University of Western Ontario, and Queen's University.

Some higher education experts, like Kevin Carey of Education Sector, have argued that U.S. News & World Report's college rankings system is merely a list of criteria that mirrors the superficial characteristics of elite colleges and universities. According to Carey, "[The] U.S. News ranking system is deeply flawed. Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues of how well colleges and universities educate their students and how well they prepare them to be successful after college, the magazine's rankings are almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth, and exclusivity." He suggested more important characteristics are how well students are learning and how likely students are to earn a degree.[64]

2007 movement[edit]

On 19 June 2007, during the annual meeting of the Annapolis Group, members discussed a letter to college presidents asking them not to participate in the "reputation survey" section of the U.S. News survey (this section comprises 25% of the ranking). As a result, "a majority of the approximately 80 presidents at the meeting said that they did not intend to participate in the U.S. News reputational rankings in the future."[65] However, the decision to fill out the reputational survey was left to each individual college.[66] The statement stated that its members "have agreed to participate in the development of an alternative common format that presents information about their colleges for students and their families to use in the college search process."[66] This database was outlined and developed in conjunction with higher education organizations including theNational Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges.

U.S. News & World Report editor Robert Morse issued a response on 22 June 2007, stating:

"in terms of the peer assessment survey, we at U.S. News firmly believe the survey has significant value because it allows us to measure the "intangibles" of a college that we can't measure through statistical data. Plus, the reputation of a school can help get that all-important first job and plays a key part in which grad school someone will be able to get into. The peer survey is by nature subjective, but the technique of asking industry leaders to rate their competitors is a commonly accepted practice. The results from the peer survey also can act to level the playing field between private and public colleges."[67]

In reference to the alternative database discussed by the Annapolis Group, Morse argued:

"It's important to point out that the Annapolis Group's stated goal of presenting college data in a common format has been tried before ... U.S. News has been supplying this exact college information for many years already. And it appears that NAICU will be doing it with significantly less comparability and functionality.U.S. News first collects all these data (using an agreed-upon set of definitions from the Common Data Set). Then we post the data on our website in easily accessible, comparable tables. In other words, the Annapolis Group and the others in the NAICU initiative actually are following the lead of U.S. News."[67]

In 1996, according to Gerhard Casper, then-president of Stanford University, U.S. News & World Report changed its formula to calculated financial resources:

Knowing that universities—and, in most cases, the statistics they submit—change little from one year to the next, I can only conclude that what are changing are the formulas the magazine's number massagers employ. And, indeed, there is marked evidence of that this year. In the category "Faculty resources," even though few of us had significant changes in our faculty or student numbers, our class sizes, or our finances, the rankings' producers created a mad scramble in rank order [... data ...]. Then there is "Financial resources," where Stanford dropped from #6 to #9, Harvard from #5 to #7. Our resources did not fall; did other institutions' rise so sharply? I infer that, in each case, the formulas were simply changed, with notification to no one, not even your readers, who are left to assume that some schools have suddenly soared, others precipitously plummeted.[68]

See also[edit]


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  51. ^ Founded by Brian Leiter then of the University of Texas at Austin, now University of Chicago
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External links[edit]