Williams is #1 in the US News ranking, for the 17th year in a row.

For the ninth straight year, Princeton University was named the No. 1 college among national universities, and Williams College was named No. 1 among national liberal arts schools for the 17th year in a row, according to the latest ranking from U.S. News & World Report. Every year, the news outlet publishes what many regard as the gold standard for college rankings in the United States.

Every time that we appear in a sentence like this (with Princeton!), the better for our brand. (And if you find that notion of the College’s “brand” to be distasteful, you are a child. Parents will not pay a quarter million dollars $300,000 for something with a less-than-amazing reputation.)

1) We did a detailed dive into the rankings three years ago. Should we revisit? If so, I would need someone to send me the underlying data. See here and here for previous discussions.

2) Kudos to Maud Mandel, and the rest of the Williams administration. Maintaining the #1 ranking is important, especially for recruiting students who are less rich, less well-educated and less American. There is no better way to get a poor (but really smart) kid from Los Angeles (or Singapore) to consider Williams than to highlight that we are the best college in the country.

3) Many schools do a lot of suspect/sleazy things to improve their rank. Does Williams? Morty, infamously, capped discussion class size at 19 to ensure that the maximum number of classes met this US News cut-off.

4) There is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.

5) Any comments on changes in the rankings below us?

6) Below the break is a copy of the methodology, saved for the benefit of future historians.

How the Methodology Works

Although our methodology is the product of years of research, we continue to refine our approach based on user feedback, discussions with schools and higher education experts, literature reviews, trends in our own data, availability of new data, and attending and sometimes presenting at professional conferences. Our detailed methodology is transparent in part for use by schools and researchers, but mostly because we believe prospective students will find our rankings more useful if they know what the rankings measure.

We group schools into 10 different ranking categories based on their academic missions. Within each category, the sum of weighted, normalized values across 15 indicators of academic quality determine each school’s overall score, and by extension its overall rank.

For display purposes, we transformed overall scores so the top performer scores 100 on a zero to 100 scale. In effect, a school’s overall score reflects its distance from the top-performing school in its ranking. Among schools placing outside the top 75% of their rankings, U.S. News made an editorial decision to only display their rankings’ bottom quartile ranges.

Only thoroughly vetted academic data from our surveys and reliable third-party sources are used to calculate each ranking factor. This means for better or for worse, we do not factor nonacademic elements like social life and athletics; we do not conduct unscientific straw polls for use in our computations, and schools’ ranks are not manipulated to coddle business relationships.

Grouping Ranked Colleges

To make valid comparisons, schools are grouped by academic mission into 10 distinct rankings.

National Universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and emphasize faculty research or award professional practice doctorates.
National Liberal Arts Colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education and award at least 50% 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. We ranked them in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.
Regional Colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50% of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. They sometimes predominantly award two-year associate degrees. We ranked them in four geographical groups: North, South, Midwest and West.

To place each school in its ranking, U.S. News strictly maps its categories to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s Basic Classification system. The U.S. Department of Education and many higher education associations use the Carnegie system to organize or label their data, among other uses. In short, the Carnegie categories are the accepted standard in U.S. higher education.

In February 2019, Carnegie released official updates – called the “2018 Update” – including the Basic system. U.S. News first used this 2018 Update in the 2020 Best Colleges rankings.

Carnegie’s 2018 Update reclassified many institutions. Most significantly, it added a professional practice doctoral category into its universe of doctoral universities. Consequently, even though U.S. News’ mapping between its ranking categories and Carnegie Classifications was unchanged, many schools are categorized in different U.S. News rankings for the 2020 edition compared with the previous edition. This underscores that the total number of schools ranked in our National Universities ranking increased by more than 25% year-to-year while total ranked Regional Universities decreased by approximately 10% year-to-year.

Schools that are new to their U.S. News ranking categories cannot have their current ranks validly compared with their previous year’s rank. Even schools that stayed in the same categories may need to have their ranks contextualized by other institutions having left and entered their categories from different positions.

The Ranking Factors

High school counselor opinion was discontinued as part of expert opinion. Otherwise, there were no changes in weights assigned to each factor for the 2020 edition. There are, however, small differences in how some of the factors were calculated, described below. For a more detailed look at how the rankings are computed on a factor-by-factor level, please see Ranking Criteria and Weights and Morse Code: Inside the College Rankings.

These are the factors and weights used in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings.

Outcomes (35%)

More than one-third of a school’s rank comes from its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% 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 graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%) and social mobility (5%).

Graduation and retention rates: This has two components.

A four-year rolling average of the proportion of each entering class (fall 2009-fall 2012) earning a degree in six years or less (17.6%).
A four-year rolling average of the proportion of first-year entering students (fall 2014-fall 2017) who returned the following fall (4.4%).

Graduation rate performance: We compared each college’s actual six-year graduation rate with what we predicted for its fall 2012 entering class. The predicted rates were modeled from admissions data, proportion of undergraduates awarded Pell Grants, school financial resources, proportion of federal financial aid recipients who are first generation, and National Universities’ math and science, or STEM, orientations.

The first-generation students variable was new for the 2020 rankings and in effect gives schools more credit for their graduation rates when accomplished with higher proportions of students who were the first in their immediate families to attend college. The data was sourced from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Its inclusion improved the model’s predictive power.

Social mobility: Measures how well schools graduated 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). New for the 2020 edition, data sourced from the federal government was used for nonresponders. Also, the below factors (weighted 2.5% each) were computed using two-year averages of fall 2011 and fall 2012 entering cohorts.

Pell Grant graduation rates are the six-year graduation rates of Pell Grant students adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions.
Pell Grant graduation rate performance is the factor that compares each school’s six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients with its six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients by dividing the former into the latter, then adjusting to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. The higher a school’s Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate up to the rates being equal, the better it scores.

U.S. News published a distinct social mobility ranking for all schools. The social mobility ranking is computed from the two ranking factors assessing graduation rates of Pell-awarded students (5% of the rankings total).

Additionally, for benchmarking purposes each schools’ ranking factors sections on its directory page includes both its social mobility rank and a distinct outcomes rank. Although the ranks themselves are not used to determine schools’ overall rankings, they are displayed to enable prospective students, parents and institutions to make comparisons on related ranking factors. The outcomes rank also includes the two social mobility ranking factors but also average graduation rates, first-year retention rates and graduation rate performance that in total comprise 35% of a school’s overall score.

We also changed how the graduation and retention rate benchmark ranking was calculated. It is once again computed from a school’s total score in these two ranking indicators: average six-year graduation rate and average first-year retention rate. In the 2019 edition only, it was based on a school’s score in these four ranking factors: average six-year graduation rate, average first-year retention rate, Pell Grant graduation rate and Pell Grant graduation rate performance.

Faculty Resources (20%)

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 2018-2019 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%. Schools score better the greater their proportions of smaller classes for fall 2018.
Faculty salary is weighted at 7% and is the average faculty pay plus benefits during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 academic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living. Nonresponders to the faculty salary question for the first time had modified federal government faculty salary data used as the basis for their estimates. Also new for the 2020 rankings, the faculty salary figures were adjusted using open source data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis regional price parities 2017 dataset published in May 2019. These regional price indexes allow comparisons from one metro area to another and measure the differences in price levels across states and metropolitan areas for a given year. They are expressed as a percentage of the overall national price level. The regional price indexes cover all consumption goods and services, including housing rents.
U.S. News also factors the proportion of full-time faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and the proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

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.

We take a two-year weighted average of ratings from top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – who rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished).

U.S. News collected the data by administering peer assessment surveys in spring 2018 and 2019 directly to schools. Of the 4,815 academics who were sent questionnaires, 43% responded. This response rate is well up from 36% the previous year.

The high school counselor opinion survey was not administered and its ranking factor was dropped from the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges rankings formulas altogether because U.S. News had greater confidence in its peer assessment data. High school counselor ratings had never been included as a ranking factor in the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges methodology. The high school counselor assessment’s 5 percentage point weight in the ranking was added to the peer assessment weight for the National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges rankings formulas, increasing the weight of that indicator in those two categories from 15% to 20% – equal to what is done for Regional Universities and Regional Colleges.

Financial Resources (10%)

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 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms and hospitals does not count.

A small adjustment for the 2020 rankings: For improved cohort alignment, we adjusted the denominator cohorts a year back so that fiscal year 2018 spending was compared with 2017 enrollment and fiscal year 2017 spending was compared with 2016 enrollment.

For nonresponders, data sourced from the federal government was used – a change from the previous rankings edition.

Student Excellence (10%)

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.

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. We weighted standardized tests at 7.75%.

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 2018. 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%. If the combined percentage of the fall 2018 entering class submitting test scores is less than 75% of all new entrants, its combined SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the rankings was discounted by 15%.

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% of their high school classes. It contributes 2.25% toward schools’ overall scores.

For Regional Universities and Regional Colleges, we used the proportion of those who graduated in the top quarter of their high school classes. New for this ranking is that high school class standing data from high schools that reported on fewer than 10% of their fall 2018 new entrants received an estimate instead of having their scores discounted. Also new is that colleges that reported high school class standing data on less than 20% of new entrants have their fall 2018 data footnoted. This is a decrease from 50% of new entrants in previous editions.

Alumni Giving (5%)

This is the average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2016-2017 and 2017-2018. Giving measures student satisfaction and post-graduate engagement. This year, U.S. News only incorporated data it collected from its own data collection.

Data Sources

Most colleges report the data directly to U.S. News. This year, 91% of ranked institutions returned their statistical information during the spring 2019 data collection window.

We use the most current information available for the rankings. Because we conduct our own data collection, much of what was analyzed and published is a year ahead of other sources. This also means much of our information on schools is not available anywhere else, or at least would require navigating through variegated school websites.

For quality assurance, rankings data that schools reported to U.S. News were algorithmically compared against previous years’ submissions to flag large change statistical outliers. Respondents were required to review, possibly revise and verify any flagged data in order to submit their surveys. New for the 2020 edition, they were also instructed to have a top academic official sign off on the accuracy of the data. Schools that declined to do this step could still submit and be ranked but are footnoted on usnews.com.

After submitting, U.S. News assessed the veracity of data submitted on a factor-by-factor level, and contacted select schools to confirm or revise data. Schools that did not respond or were unable to confirm their data’s accuracy may have had the data in question unpublished and unused in the calculations.

We obtained missing data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (finances, faculty counts and faculty salaries, SAT and ACT scores, and graduation and retention rates). Altogether for the 2020 edition, U.S. News used third-party data for nonresponders on ranking factors that total 17 percentage points greater than was used in the previous edition. 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 1,900 institutions. While data for all schools appear on usnews.com, just shy of 1,400 schools were ranked.

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