10 Things You Should Know About the 2015 US News Best College Rankings

5 star ratingDespite the increasing number of college rankings and the growing criticism of their use, US News Best College Rankings is hard to ignore. And you have to admit, they do make it easy to decide whether or not you should be impressed when you hear which school the valedictorian is attending. Love ’em or hate ’em, people are going to be talking about the rankings. For those who want to contribute something meaningful to the discussion (or considering schools not in the top of the rankings), you should be aware of the following:

1. The number of full-time undergraduates at the schools that rank in the top 50 of US News Best College Rankings for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges represent just under 10% of all full-time undergraduates. If being in the top 10% is important to you, attending one of these schools could meet your status needs.

2. Academic reputation counts for 22.5% of the rankings on the national lists and is probably the most difficult score to change. Not that people aren’t trying. According to the methodology, “In order to reduce the impact of strategic voting by respondents, we eliminated the two highest and two lowest scores each school received before calculating the average score.” Does anyone really believe that colleges don’t care about their rankings?

Even if “presidents, provosts and deans of admissions” aren’t trying to game the system, are they really in a position to “account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching?” It would be a bit like asking all of the high school principals in a state to rank how good the teaching is at other high schools in the state. And they’re only to consider the intangibles, so by definition it shouldn’t be anything that can be measured.

So why include it, much less give it so much weight? How else can you ensure that the “expected” colleges show up in the top ten year after year?

3. The four-year graduation rates for the top 50 National Liberal Arts Colleges ranged from 67% to 91% and 52% to 89% for National Universities. I excluded Georgia Tech with its 34% four-year rate since it’s an engineering school. Its five-year rate is 72%. There are 291 schools that aren’t in the top 50 than have a four-year graduation rate of 52% or better. Of these, 203 don’t show up in the top 100 of the national rankings.  By the way, US News Best College Rankings uses the six-year graduation rate–how long were you planning on taking to graduate?

4. You can spend some serious cash applying to the schools. 84 have application fees of $50 or more, 42 charged $70 or more with $90 being the highest (last year’s fees). Eleven public schools are included in the group charging $70 or more.  Excluding the three military academies, only two state schools charged less than $50 to apply.

5. The only public schools in the top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges rankings are the military academies.

6. As in past years, four states dominate the rankings: California, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. A total of 28 National Liberal Arts Colleges and 25 National Universities are from these four states. Now this isn’t necessarily surprising since three of the states have the most total number of colleges to begin with. But there are three states with more colleges than Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, and Ohio, that have a combined total of six schools on the top 50 list.

7. It’s a good thing few students pay the full-sticker price since the average total cost of attendance for the private schools ranked in the top 50 averaged $60,025 compared to the average of $42,960 for all private schools. Public schools in the top 50 seem to have a price tag premium as well with an average of $28,414 for total cost compared to $21,540 average for all public institutions.

Just as an FYI, US News Best College Rankings avoids confusing students by showing only the tuition and fees in the data table for the rankings. You have to look up the individual school and add the room and board fees back in to get the total cost of attendance. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

8. While the schools in the top 50 tend to be known for their generous financial aid, they aren’t exactly admitting a lot of students that really need it. Among the top 50 on the National University and National Liberal Arts College rankings, 58 schools had less than 17% of freshman receiving Pell Grants.

Why did I pick 17%? That’s the number that the Education Trust proposes as the minimum performance standard for colleges. Below 17% represents the bottom five percent of all colleges. The average for private schools in the top 50 was 14.8% compared to 39.1% for all private schools with the top 50 average for National Universities at 25.6% compared to 44.6% for all public schools.

9. It’s not as if the schools in top 50 are hurting for money. The average endowment per student for private schools was $356,997, almost six times the average of $60,396 for all schools. Among the public schools, the top 50 average of $52,968 was just over six times the average of $8,798 for all public institutions.

10. Nine of the top 50 had admission rates of 50% or better, three on the Liberal Arts Colleges list and six on the National Universities list. Another 14 had 40% or better acceptance rates. Of the 74 schools that had acceptance rates of less than 30%, 52 were in the top 50. Among the 22 remaining schools, only one was in the top 100 of the national rankings.

Where the Data Comes From

All of the data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS). It’s based on four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates. The data are from 2013-14 with exception of the Pell Grant, Graduation Rates, and Endowment information which are from 2011-12. All of the data is available in the DIY College Search Spreadsheet.


  1. […] US News Best College Rankings consists of two national lists: National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges. Most people recognize the schools at the top of the National Universities list. Those at the top of the National Liberal Arts list? Not so much. The reason is because by definition, Liberal Arts Colleges (LAC) are smaller, have a limited number of majors, and few, if any graduate students. And this makes them some of the most effective college experiences for undergraduates around. […]

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