Deciding where to go to school is tough. Quality is more nebulous in higher education than goods like clothes and streaming music. But the 2019 edition of U.S. News's Best Colleges can at least make finding the right fit more manageable.
The rankings evaluate colleges and universities on 16 measures of academic quality. They allow you to compare at a glance the relative quality of U.S. institutions based on such widely accepted indicators of excellence as first-year student retention, graduation rates and the strength of the faculty. And as you check out colleges already on your short list, you may discover unfamiliar schools with similar metrics and thus broaden your options.
Along with the rankings is a searchable online directory of school profiles. Each one includes data used in the rankings, user reviews of schools, plus key characteristics on applying, academics, cost, student life, safety, services, post-graduate employment and salary outcomes. Because U.S. News surveys schools directly, much of these data are not readily accessible anywhere else.
Grouping Ranked Colleges
To make valid comparisons, schools are grouped by academic mission into 10 categories for 10 distinct rankings.
National Universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master's and doctoral programs, and emphasize faculty research. National Liberal Arts Colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education. They award at least 50 percent 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. Regional Colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines; this category also includes schools that have small bachelor's degree programs but primarily grant two-year associate degrees. Regional Universities and Regional Colleges are further divided and ranked in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.
U.S. News followed the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education's Basic Classification system to determine schools' placement into the 2019 edition ranking categories. In February 2016, Carnegie released official updates – called the "2015 Update" – including the Basic system. U.S. News followed this 2015 Update starting with the 2017 Best Colleges rankings. No schools changed categories between last year's 2018 rankings and this year's 2019 edition.
The Carnegie classification, which higher education researchers use extensively, has been the basis of the Best Colleges ranking category system since the publication of our first rankings in 1983. The U.S. Department of Education and many higher education associations use the Carnegie system to organize or label their data. In some cases, the Carnegie classifications are used to determine colleges' eligibility for grant money. In short, the Carnegie categories are the accepted standard in U.S. higher education.
How the Methodology Works
Hard objective data alone determine each school's rank. We do not tour residence halls, chat with recruiters or conduct unscientific student polls for use in our computations.
The rankings formula uses exclusively statistical quantitative and qualitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality. To calculate the overall rank for each school within each category, up to 16 metrics of academic excellence below are assigned weights that reflect U.S. News' researched judgment about how much they matter. For display purposes, we group these measures into the following indicators: outcomes, faculty resources, expert opinion, financial resources, student excellence and alumni giving.
U.S. News changed the weights of multiple indicators and dropped one indicator compared with the 2018 edition. The indicators, their weights in the ranking formula and an explanation of each are below.
Outcomes (35 percent, up from 30 percent in 2018)
More than one-third of a school's rank comes from its success at retaining and graduating students within 150 percent of normal time (six years). It receives the highest weight in our rankings because degree completion is necessary to receive the full benefits of undergraduate study from employers and graduate schools. We approach outcomes from angles of social mobility (5 percent), graduation and retention (22 percent), and graduation rate performance (8 percent).
Social mobility: New this year, we factored a school's success at promoting social mobility by graduating students who received federal Pell Grants (those typically coming from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000). See below the two measures that factor into social mobility.
- Pell Grant graduation rates are weighted at 2.5 percent. This new ranking indicator measures the success of Pell Grant students on an absolute basis. To calculate this indicator, we use a school's six-year graduation rate among new fall 2011 entrants receiving Pell Grants. This assesses each school’s performance graduating students from low-income backgrounds. A higher Pell Grant graduation rate scores better than a lower one.
- Pell Grant graduation rates compared with all other students are weighted at 2.5 percent. This additional new ranking factor compares each school's six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients who were new fall 2011 entrants graduating in 2017 with the six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients at the same school by dividing the former into the latter. The minority of schools whose Pell graduation rates are equal to or greater than non-Pell graduation rates score the highest. Altogether, this metric assesses each school’s performance at supporting students from underserved backgrounds relative to all of its other students. The lower a school's Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate, the lower it scores on this indicator.
Scores for the new social mobility indicators were then adjusted by the proportion of the entering class that was awarded Pell Grants because achieving a higher low-income student graduation rate is more challenging with a larger proportion of low-income students.
As a result of adding indicators for social mobility into the 2019 Best Colleges rankings, when combined with the graduation rate performance, U.S. News takes economic diversity into account in indicators that comprise 13 percent of the rankings.
Our other outcome measures include:
Graduation and retention rates: The higher the proportion of first-year students who return to campus for sophomore year and eventually graduate, the better a school is apt to be at offering the classes and services that students need to succeed. This has two components:
- The average six-year graduation rate is 17.6 percent, down from 18 percent in 2018.
- The average first-year retention rate is 4.4 percent, down from 4.5 percent in 2018.
The graduation rate indicates the average proportion of a graduating class earning a degree in six years or less; we considered first-year student classes that started from fall 2008 through fall 2011. First-year retention indicates the average proportion of first-year students who entered the school in the fall 2013 through fall 2016 and returned the following fall. Graduation is given four times more weight than retention. We weighted it at 22 percent total, down from 22.5 percent in 2018.
Graduation rate performance: We compared each college's actual six-year graduation rate to what we predicted for its fall 2011 entering class. The predicted rates were modeled from admissions data, proportion of undergraduates awarded Pell Grants, school financial resources, and national universities' math and science, or STEM, orientations. We weighted it at 8 percent, up from 7.5 percent in 2018.
The graduation and retention rate numerical ranking published on usnews.com for the 2019 Best Colleges is based on a school's total score in the following four ranking indicators: average six-year graduation rates, average first-year retention rates, Pell Grant graduation rates and Pell Grant graduation rates compared all other students. Previously, the graduation and retention rate numerical ranking published on usnews.com was based on a school's total score in these two ranking indicators: average six-year graduation and average first-year retention rates.
Faculty Resources (20 percent)
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 likely graduate. U.S. News uses five factors from the 2017-2018 academic year to assess a school's commitment to instruction: class size, faculty salary, faculty with the highest degree in their fields, student-faculty ratio and proportion of faculty who are full time.
- Class size is the most highly weighted faculty resource measure, at 8 percent. Schools score better the greater their proportions of smaller classes. Schools receive the most credit in this index for the proportion of their fall 2017 term undergraduate classes with fewer than 20 students. Classes with 20 to 29 students score second highest, 30 to 39 students third highest and 40 to 49 students fourth highest. Classes that have 50 or more students receive no credit.
- Faculty salary is weighted at 7 percent and is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International.
- U.S. News also factors the proportion of full-time faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3 percent), student-faculty ratio (1 percent) and the proportion of faculty who are full time (1 percent).
Expert Opinion (20 percent, down from 22.5 percent in 2018)
We survey top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – asking them to rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). To get another set of important opinions, U.S. News also surveyed nearly 24,400 counselors at public, private and parochial high schools from all 50 states and Washington, D.C, via emails provided to U.S. News by MDR, a division of Dun & Bradstreet.
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.
- The peer assessment survey averages results from spring 2017 and 2018. It is weighted at 15 percent for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges; 20 percent for Regional Universities and Colleges (down from 22.5 percent in 2018). Of the 4,589 academics who were sent questionnaires, 35.5 percent responded. This response rate is down from the 40.4 percent response rate in spring 2017 and the 39 percent response rate to the surveys conducted in spring 2016.
- The high school counselor assessment survey averages results from spring 2016, 2017 and 2018. It is weighted at 5 percent (down from 7.5 percent in 2018) and only applies toward National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges. For the high school counselor survey, approximately half of the high school counselors (12,200) were asked to rate the schools in the National Universities ranking category and the other half were asked to rate schools in the National Liberal Arts category.
Financial Resources (10 percent)
Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide 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 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms and hospitals does not count.
Student Excellence (10 percent, down from 12.5 percent in 2018)
A school's academic atmosphere is influenced by the selectivity of its admissions. Simply put, students who achieved strong grades and test scores during high school have the highest probability of succeeding at challenging college-level coursework; enabling instructors to design classes that have great rigor.
New for 2019, acceptance rate (1.25 percent in last year's ranking) has been completely removed from the ranking calculations to make room for the new social mobility indicators.
Also, we reduced the weight of the two remaining student excellence factors assessing the fall 2017 entering class – standardized tests and high school class standing.
Standardized tests: U.S. News factors admissions test scores for all enrollees who took the mathematics and evidence-based reading and writing portions of the SAT and the composite ACT. The SAT scores used in this year's rankings and published on usnews.com are for the new SAT test administered starting March 2016.
We weighted standardized tests at 7.75 percent, down from 8.125 percent in 2018.
Schools sometimes fail to report SAT and ACT scores for students in these categories: athletes, international students, minority students, legacies, those admitted by special arrangement and those who started in summer 2017. For any school that did not report all scores or that declined to say whether all scores were reported, U.S. News reduced its combined SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the ranking model by 15 percent. This practice is not new; since the 1997 rankings, U.S. News has discounted under these circumstances because the effect of leaving students out could be that lower scores are omitted. U.S. News also footnotes schools that declined to tell U.S. News whether all students with SAT and ACT test scores were represented.
If the combined percentage of the fall 2017 entering class submitting test scores is less than 75 percent of all new entrants, its combined SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the rankings was discounted by 15 percent. U.S. News has also applied this policy in previous editions of the rankings.
High school class standing: U.S. News incorporates the proportion of enrolled first-year students at National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. For Regional Universities and Regional Colleges, we used the proportion of those who graduated in the top quarter of their high school classes.
We weighted this at 2.25 percent, down from 3.125 percent in 2018.
Alumni Giving (5 percent)
This is the average percentage of living alumni with bachelor's degrees who gave to their school during 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. Giving measures student satisfaction and post-graduate engagement.
The weighted, normalized values across all 16 indicators are summed and transformed so that each eligible school receives an overall score between 0 and 100, with the top performer scoring 100. Finally, colleges and universities are ranked against their peers in descending order of their overall scores, with tied scores producing tied rankings. Schools placing in the top 75 percent display their individual rank on usnews.com. For lower-performing schools, U.S. News made an editorial decision to only display the bottom quartile ranking range in that ranking category.
Most colleges report the data directly to U.S. News. This year, 92 percent of ranked institutions returned their statistical information during the spring 2018 data collection window.
For quality assurance, rankings data that schools reported to U.S. News were algorithmically compared against previous years' submissions and third-party sources. Respondents were required to review, revise and verify any flagged data in order to submit their surveys. Afterward, the veracity of the data submitted was rigorously reviewed by U.S. News data analysts and subject to further requests for schools to confirm or revise data.
We obtained missing data from the Council for Aid to Education (alumni giving rates) and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (finances, faculty, SAT and ACT, and graduation and retention rates). U.S. News uses estimates, which are not displayed, in the ranking calculation when schools fail to report ranking indicator data points that are not available from these sources. Missing data are reported as "N/A" on usnews.com. Schools that refused to fill out the U.S. News survey altogether are footnoted as nonresponders.
In total, U.S. News has collected data on more than 1,800 independently regionally accredited institutions. While data for all schools appear on usnews.com, just shy of 1,400 schools were ranked.
In total, 126 colleges are listed as unranked. This designation most typically owes to one of two main reasons:
- They are in a Carnegie Classification that U.S. News has not included in its ranking categories. These include 85 highly specialized schools in arts, business and engineering.
- They reported not using either SAT or ACT scores in admissions decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants.
Note: Schools with test-optional or test-flexible admissions policies still use these SAT and ACT scores in their admissions process, if prospective students provide them, and those schools are included in the rankings. Many schools not using standardized tests at all primarily administer nontraditional degree-completion programs targeted toward midcareer adults.
In very rare cases, schools display as unranked because their total enrollment is under 200 undergraduate and graduate students, they received fewer than 10 cumulative peer assessment ratings in the 2017 and 2018 surveys, or other narrow reasons.
Separate from those that are unranked, U.S. schools that award bachelor's degrees are excluded entirely from the Best Colleges section of usnews.com if they are only nationally accredited or have no accreditation, are branch campuses whose accreditation is through a parent institution or are graduate schools that only award bachelor's degrees through degree-completion programs.
Check out usnews.com in the coming year, since we may add content to the Best Colleges pages as we obtain additional information. And as you mine these tables for insights – where your SAT or ACT scores might win you 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.
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.
Morse is the author of the U.S. News blog, Morse Code: Inside the College Rankings. He is also one of the founding members and on the board of the International Ranking Experts Group, and a frequent speaker at higher education conferences in the U.S. and around the world. Prior to joining U.S. News in 1976, he also worked at the U.S. Treasury Department and the New York investment bank E.F. Hutton Co. Inc. Morse has a B.A. in economics from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA in finance from Michigan State University.