How U.S. News Does The Ranking

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Just how can rankings help you identify colleges and universities that are right for you? Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers. But for families, the U.S. News rankings provide an excellent starting point because they offer the opportunity to judge the relative quality of institutions based on widely accepted indicators of excellence. You can compare different schools' numbers at a glance, and looking at unfamiliar schools that are ranked near schools you know can be a good way to broaden your search.

Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information in this book with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college.

It's very important, of course, to research the course and program offerings at any school you're interested in. For the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News helps by spotlighting schools with outstanding examples of academic programs that have been shown to enhance learning. With the help of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which focuses on quality initiatives in higher education, we identified eight types of programs associated with student success, including first-year experiences, learning communities, writing in the disciplines, senior capstone, study abroad, internships or cooperative education, opportunities for undergraduate research, and service learning. We asked college presidents, chief academic officers, and admissions deans to nominate up to 10 institutions with excellent examples of each. The results are on the Academic Programs to Look For section of this website.

The U.S. News rankings system rests on two pillars. It relies on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it's based on our nonpartisan view of what matters in education.

U.S. News has made numerous changes this year to improve our methodology and rankings. To sort colleges and universities into the appropriate categories, this 2008 edition of America's Best Colleges uses the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's recently announced 2006 Basic version of its Carnegie Classifications. This was the first major category revision by Carnegie since 2000 (we implemented those changes in the 2002 rankings). The latest revision has resulted in many schools changing from one U.S. News ranking category to another. In addition, some schools, including the U.S. service academies, are ranked for the very first time. The Carnegie Classifications have been the basis of the Best Colleges ranking categories since the first rankings in 1983 and also are used in higher-education research. For example, the U.S. Department of Education and many associations use them to organize their data and to determine colleges' eligibility for grant money. In short, the Carnegie categories are the accepted standard in higher education, and that is why we use them.

How will you be able to tell whether a school has changed ranking categories or is new to the rankings for 2008? We have clearly footnoted schools that have switched categories since last year's America's Best Colleges or that appear in our rankings for the first time.

The second major change this year is that we have created groups of unranked schools that we have listed alphabetically in separate tables at the bottom of the category in which they would have been ranked. This is not the first year U.S. News has decided not to rank some schools; we have been doing this to some degree since 1990. U.S. News believes that because these schools are unable to report key educational characteristics or because they have certain other characteristics, it would be unfair to try to compare them statistically with the other schools that are part of the rankings.

Ranked or unranked? A new group of schools was added to the list of unranked schools for America's Best Colleges 2008: those institutions that have indicated that they don't use the sat or act in admission decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants. In addition, some schools were not ranked because they didn't receive enough responses on the peer assessment survey to allow us to use their peer score as part of the overall ranking. Other types of schools have been unranked in previous years and continue to be unranked this year. They include schools with total enrollment of fewer than 200 students; schools where a vast proportion of students are nontraditional; colleges that don't accept first-year students, sometimes called upper-division schools; private universities that are for-profit; and a few specialized schools in arts, business, or engineering. (These schools are classified by Carnegie as "Special Focus Institutions.")

We added the proportion of the student body receiving Pell grants into our predicted graduation rate formula. Pell grants are an important indicator of how many low-income students attend a school, and adding them resulted in a model that better captures the school's student body and improves that indicator. More about Pell grants can be found in our Economic Diversity table.

Same schools, new name. Finally, we changed the name of the comprehensive colleges-bachelor's ranking category to baccalaureate colleges since we believe the new label is a clearer way to identify these schools in terms of their broad educational mission.

How does the methodology work? First, schools are categorized by mission and, in some cases, by region.

The national universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master's and Ph.D. programs, and emphasize faculty research. The liberal arts colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education. They award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the arts and sciences. The universities-master's offer a broad scope of undergraduate degrees and some master's degree programs but few, if any, doctoral programs. The baccalaureate colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. The baccalaureate colleges include institutions where at least 10 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor's degrees. The universities-master's and baccalaureate colleges categories are further subdivided by geography - North, South, Midwest, and West.

Next, we gather data from each college for up to 15 indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is assigned a weight that reflects our judgment about how much a meas ure matters. Finally, the colleges in each category are ranked against their peers, based on their composite weighted score.
  • John Esterbrook

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