How Accurate are US News College Rankings?

Many students turn to US News when on the hunt for the best colleges on the face of the planet. It’s not surprising since it’s the largest college search and ranking site around. But just because US News is arguably the most trusted doesn’t necessarily mean you should choose a school based on the site’s annual rankings alone.

US News college rankings are accurate if the methodology used and details provided by schools alone are considered. However, rankings can be influenced by what participating schools disclose. By making strategic responses or manipulating figures, schools can have control over their rankings.

College rankings help make getting to know the different schools on your list quick and easy. Especially because the last two years of high school tend to be the busiest, they are, without a doubt, heaven-sent.

Do you check out the college rankings by US News, just like most students, but somehow wonder whether or not it’s a good idea to leave your fate in the hands of a site that tells everyone which schools should be on the top of the list and which ones should be crossed out of it?

Then read on. Below, you will come across some of the most important things you need to know about college rankings, be it by US News or otherwise, such as how they are determined and how they can be influenced.

How US News Determines Rankings

What’s nice about US News college rankings is that the schools that appear on its annual listings and their positions are not determined randomly. If there’s one fundamental thing you should know about these rankings, it’s that US News’ well-researched ranking methodology involves several factors.

In fact, the site used a total of 17 factors in coming up with 2021’s college ranking. These factors are:

  • Average alumni giving rate. Many schools consider alumni donations vital for supporting their educational mission. The more alumni donations they receive every academic year, the more satisfying the learning experience of the students. Factor weight: 3%.
  • Financial resources. For a school to uphold its academic mission, it has to have enough money to carry out various essentials. Some of them include research, instruction, student services, institutional support and public service. Factor weight: 10%.
  • Peer assessment. In determining expert option scores, US News turned to expert opinions. They asked peer institutions to survey the presidents, deans, administrators, and others holding key positions of schools in the same ranking category. Factor weight: 20%.
  • First-year student retention average. This factor is all about the percentage of first-year students who returned to the same school the following academic school year. As a general rule of thumb, the more first-year students return, the more satisfying the college experience. Factor weight: 4.4%.
  • Graduate indebtedness total. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average student loan debt for all graduate school borrowers, which US News has chosen as a factor, is $71,000. Factor weight: 3%.
  • Graduate indebtedness proportion with debt. In scoring colleges based on this factor, the site only looked at loans made to students who borrowed money while attending the colleges that they graduated from. It also considered co-signed loans. Factor weight: 2%.
  • Graduation rate. When choosing a college, it’s a good idea to take a look at the school’s graduation rate. That’s because it can give you a glimpse of how many students earn their degrees on time, which can say so much about the quality of education. Factor weight: 17.6%.
  • Graduation rate performance. It’s for the 2021 college ranking when US News first used this factor. It’s all about the relationship between the predicted graduation rate and the actual graduation rate. If the actual graduation rate is lower than the predicted rate, the school is underperforming. Factor weight: 8%.
  • High school class standing. Class rank allows the admissions officers to have an idea of how an applicant’s academic performance compares to the rest of the class. It also lets the school put the GPA of the applicant into context. Factor weight: 2%.
  • Pell Grant graduation rates. Welcoming more underrepresented students, such as those from low-income families, into the campus allows a school to get higher scores on this factor. The majority of Pell Grants are given to students whose total family income is below $20,000. Factor weight: 2.5%.
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance. Put simply, the score a school may earn for this factor is determined by considering the Pell Grant and non-Pell Grant graduation rates. If the Pell Grant graduation rate is equal to or higher than non-Pell Grant graduation rate, the higher the score. Factor weight: 2.5%.
  • Class size. A small class size allows the students to get to know each other. It also enables the teachers to get to know the students better. It’s because of this why US News gave the highest scores to schools whose classes consist of 20 students or fewer. Factor weight: 8%.
  • Proportion of full-time faculty. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) says that, although part-time faculty offer the same quality in teaching, full-time faculty offers more benefits, such as stability of curriculum functions. Factor weight: 1%.
  • Student-faculty ratio. Having a low student-faculty ratio allows students to receive individual attention from their teachers, leading to enhanced learning and better results. This is why the lower the student-faculty ratio, the higher the score the school gets. Factor weight: 1%.
  • Faculty salaries. Based on research, there is a strong link between the financial compensation of faculty and academic outcomes. It makes perfect sense: if the teachers are happy, they will be more than willing to carry out their jobs. Factor weight: 7%.
  • Faculty with doctorate or terminal degrees. By and large, schools with more faculty with terminal degrees in their respective fields tend to perform better than schools with less. It’s all about hiring faculty with the most experience. Factor weight: 3%
  • SAT or ACT scores. More and more schools are going test-optional these days. Despite this, US News still included SAT or ACT scores in the ranking methodology. In a few, we will talk about how standardized test scores can influence college rankings, so don’t stop reading. Factor weight: 5%.

For the 2021 college ranking, it’s apparent that US News has included factors that students looking for schools to apply to tend to take into account. For instance, small class sizes and low student-faculty ratios are some of things students prefer in colleges and universities.

However, it’s the weight of each factor that makes the site’s college rankings subjective.

Some students may think that SAT or ACT scores are no longer important factors since many schools these days are test-optional. Still, US News gave this factor a weight of 5%. Other students may feel that the availability of more full-time faculty is critical. However, the site thought that this factor should have a weight of 1% only.

It’s true that the individual factors used by the site, especially the ones that you deem fundamental in the selection process, can help you choose a school wisely.

However, it’s when these factors are taken collectively in order to determine which schools should go to the top and which ones should go to the bottom of the list when the problem occurs. The resulting college ranking is practically US News’ personal preference — it’s neither objective nor the reflection of reality.

Due to this, it’s a much better idea to come up with your own college ranking. After all, the best ranker of schools in which you will fit very well is you, not US News or any other ranking site.

In a few, you will learn how to build a personalized college ranking list, so keep on reading.

How Colleges Can Manipulate Rankings

Above, we mentioned the various factors that US News included in its ranking methodology for coming up with the 2021 college ranking list.

However, what wasn’t mentioned is how the website collected the data they use. When ranking schools, the site uses various approaches to gather information, like by obtaining details from the schools themselves.

This is when colleges and universities have the opportunity to influence their rankings.

Including and excluding numbers they want US News to use in its ranking methodology — that’s how quick and simple it is for schools to manipulate the outcome.

Some schools also deliberately provide the site with falsified data to make them look better ranking-wise. For instance, in 2018, the dean of the business school of Temple University, together with an administrator and a professor, submitted incorrect information on the school’s online and part-time MBA programs to US News for its annual MBA rankings.

One of the lies stated was that all MBA students submitted SAT or ACT scores when only 20% did so.

Many schools desperate for ranking high can be both cunning and creative when it comes to manipulating college rankings, be it by US News or some other site.

Here are some of the things that deceitful schools use to make themselves seem like they’re the best:

Admission rates

Most selective schools share one thing in common: low admission rates.

To make themselves appear selective, thus desired by many applicants, some schools encourage non-qualified students to apply.

Since the majority of them will be turned down anyway, their admission rate will drop. This will create a vicious circle — the more students apply, the lower the admission rate gets, the more students will be tempted to apply.

Delayed admission

Besides giving non-qualified applicants false hope to make their admission rates drop, some schools deliberately delay admissions.

They do this by offering everyone a chance to enroll in the spring. In some instances, the applicants are even allowed to enroll the following academic year.

Through guaranteed transfer offers, admits don’t count as admits when US News or other college ranking sites spring into action. Rather, they count as rejected students, thus causing the admission rate to plummet.

Test scores

Many devious schools use a test-optional admission process to their advantage just to rank higher on college rankings.

They know for a fact that only applicants who are happy with their high SAT or ACT scores will include them in the application. Similarly, they know very well that applicants with low standardized test scores will not reveal theirs.

Because US News cannot check out SAT or ACT scores that were not submitted by the students, the SAT or ACT scores accepted by schools will appear high.

How to Build Your Own College Ranking

There are so many colleges and universities to choose from.

Similarly, there are tons of factors to consider when choosing which of them you should apply to. It’s due to this why shortlisting schools can easily become one of the most difficult tasks you will have to carry out before you leave your high school.

It’s a good thing that college rankings, such as that by US News, can help simplify the undertaking.

Simplify — that’s the operative word, not refine.

US News, as demonstrated earlier, uses its own factors, in particular those that it deems important when ranking colleges. And we also pointed out earlier that some of the factors it uses can be craftily manipulated by schools, thus influencing their positions on ranking lists.

The good news is that you can come up with your own college ranking that’s both reliable and precise. After all, the factors used and the weight of each one will be decided upon by you, the one who will go to college.

It will take more work alright than just heading to US News’ site, but it will be worth it! Here are the steps:

Determine the factors

US News has various factors that it uses as integral parts of its ranking methodology. Well, to come up with your own college ranking, you need to determine which factors you will include.

Everyone knows that the site uses some of the most important factors, which is why many students put their trust in it. But not all of them may be important to you. This is why you may get rid of factors used by US News that you don’t consider integral, like SAT or ACT scores, if you’re planning to apply to test-optional schools.

Similarly, feel free to add new ones, such as the presence of health and wellness facilities if you’re a fitness buff or the availability of various clubs and activities if you want your extracurricular activities covered.

Name a few schools

In many aspects of life, more is usually merrier. However, when it comes to choosing which schools you should apply to, more is only more confusing and exhausting.

Always keep in mind that applying to as many colleges as you want can take up not only time but money, too — one application can cost close to $100 unless you get the fees waived by the school. What’s more, due to stress, it’s very much likely for the quality of your applications and essays to be compromised, thus reducing your chances of admission.

This is why instead of having 20 schools on your list, include five to seven schools only.

But don’t just pick random schools. Make sure that you opt for those that offer your chosen program of study. Consider those that are well-known for the degree you would like to get your hands on.

Tally up the scores

On a piece of paper, create a column containing the names of your preferred schools. Write the different factors you deem the most important across the top of the paper.

Write 1 for every factor you like about the school. Write 0 for every factor you don’t like. If you’re not sure, leave it blank. After you have scored the different factors of all the schools that you have written down, tally up the scores. Arranging the scores from highest to lowest will let you see which ones are high rankers — the higher the score, the better.

Your score sheet should look something like this:

College A1102
College B01113
College C0101
College D11114
College E11013

Take your time when building your own college ranking from scratch. After all, it’s your future that’s on the line. And because your ranking is based on factors that you deem important rather than factors that a site believes are crucial, the school that emerges as number one is the perfect school for you.


US News college rankings allow students to have a quick peek of some of the best schools for the academic year.

While many consider them as the gold standard of college rankings, it’s of utmost importance to keep in mind that US News college rankings can be subjective since the people behind them are the ones that decide which factors should be included in the ranking methodology and how much weight each one of them should have.

Besides, it’s possible for some schools to manipulate college rankings, including those by US News, just by choosing which numbers they will report and which ones they won’t. Sometimes, some schools will fabricate data, too.

It’s because of this why you should take US news college rankings and those by other sites with a grain of salt. In the end, the best college ranker is nobody else but you. That’s because you know exactly which factors should go into figuring out whether a school needs to be placed on the top of your list or crossed out of it.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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