US News and World Report
by Sarah Wood
This year, the annual U.S. News Best Colleges rankings underwent significant methodological changes, including the elimination of five longstanding factors and the addition of several new factors. Those adjustments led to some notable year-over-year position changes, particularly among schools in the middle of the pack.
Even so, the top-ranked colleges stayed mostly steady from last year.
Despite some opposition to the rankings, the vast majority of schools U.S. News surveyed continued to report data. About 80% of the nearly 1,500 ranked institutions returned their statistical information in the spring and summer of 2023, compared to about 84% last year. This includes 99 of the top 100 ranked National Universities and 97 of the top 100 National Liberal Arts Colleges.
Here's a look at the top-ranked schools in their respective categories in the 2024 Best Colleges rankings.
Princeton University in New Jersey (No. 1)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 2)
Harvard University in Massachusetts (No. 3, tie)
Stanford University in California (No. 3, tie)
Yale University in Connecticut (No. 5)
National Liberal Arts Colleges:
Williams College in Massachusetts (No. 1)
Amherst College in Massachusetts (No. 2)
United States Naval Academy in Maryland (No. 3)
Pomona College in California (No. 4, tie)
Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (No. 4, tie)
Wellesley College in Massachusetts (No. 4, tie)
In an effort to place more emphasis on social mobility and outcomes, new factors were added to this year's rankings, including first-generation graduation rates, first-generation graduation rate performance and proportion of college graduates earning more than a high school graduate. The definition of social mobility changed this year in the National Universities ranking to include first-generation graduation rates, in addition to Pell-recipient graduation rates.
These new first-generation rankings factors are based on graduation rates of federal loan recipients who entered college between fall 2011 and fall 2013. To be classified as a first-generation college student, neither parent could be on record as attending college, or that information is unknown, based on what families fill out on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA form.
The new earnings factor assessed the proportion of a school's federal loan recipients who were earning more than a typical high school graduate salary in 2019-2020 – which is four years after those students completed their undergraduate degrees. This data is determined by and reported in the College Scorecard, an online tool created by the U.S. government for consumers to compare the cost and value of U.S. higher education institutions.
The weights of some existing indicators for the 2024 edition were also modified. Pell graduation performance and rates, for instance, were increased slightly. See the shifts in weight in the table below.
Additionally, four new ranking factors related to faculty research were introduced for National Universities. Those include citations per publication, field-weighted citation impact and the share of publications cited in the top 5% and 25% of the most cited journals by CiteScore, all based on bibliometric data from Elsevier, an information analytics company. This accounts for 4% of the overall rankings formula.
U.S. News also ranks certain undergraduate program areas, including business, engineering,computer science and nursing. This year, U.S. News added the peer assessment rankings of medium to large undergraduate psychology and economics programs. Other changes to the rankings can be found here.
What Was Eliminated?
Five longstanding factors were dropped from this year's rankings calculations: proportion of graduates who borrowed federal loans, high school class standing, alumni giving rate, terminal degree faculty and class size.
Why Change the Methodology?
The U.S. News data team used research findings and polls – including from Strada/Gallup and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics – to help identify factors that represent what students are looking for in schools. In addition, the rankings use education information that was not available for most of the college rankings’ history, according to the U.S. News data team.
Some input measures were replaced if the data was not being universally reported or was being less used by colleges. For instance, many high schools have moved away from reporting class standing.
Only two ranking factors' weights did not change at all: peer assessment (20%) and standardized tests for schools with usable SAT and ACT scores (5%).
How Colleges Fared
The top 10 National Universities – schools that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees – stayed relative similar, with minor fluctuations. Brown Universityin Rhode Island went from a tie at No. 13 to a tie at No. 9 after performing better in several categories, including Pell graduation rates, median debt, graduation rate performance, standardized tests, financial resources, faculty salary and the number of full-time faculty.
The University of Chicago in Illinois, on the other hand, fell out of the top 10 after not performing well on the new first-generation factors. Dropping from the No. 6 spot, the University of Chicagonow ties with two New York schools, Cornell University and Columbia University, at No. 12.
A survey nonresponder for the second year in a row, Columbia rose five spots after performing better on Pell graduation rates, standardized tests and grad rate performance, among others factors. Columbia was unranked in the 2022 edition of the Best Colleges rankings (first published in September 2021) for failing to respond to requests from U.S. News to substantiate certain data.
There was quite a bit of year-to-year movement, however, lower down the rankings list. This is mostly due to changes in the ranking factors – how these schools scored on factors that were eliminated and criteria that were newly implemented.
Rutgers University—Newark in New Jersey and the University of California, Merced experienced large jumps, for instance. Previously tied at No. 97, UC Merced rose to tie with six other schools for the No. 60 spot. Rutgers also soared more than 30 spots to tie with the University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Illinois—Chicago and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts at No. 82.
Virginia Tech jumped a little less in the rankings – rising by 15 spots to tie at No. 47 – one of several schools whose rise in rank was assisted by producing graduates who were very likely to earn more than typical high school graduates.
Other schools fell in the rankings, including Wake Forest University in North Carolina and Tulane University in Louisiana. Wake Forest dropped from a tie at No. 29 to a tie at No. 47, while Tulane went from a tie at No. 44 to a tie at 73.
The rankings of National Liberal Arts Colleges, schools that emphasize undergraduate education and award half or more of their degrees across liberal arts fields, also saw limited year-over-year movement at the very top. Williams College and Amherst College, both in Massachusetts, retained the same spots as in the prior edition of the rankings: No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
However, there was a new entrant to the top 10. The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado rose 11 spots to No. 7. Meanwhile, Claremont McKenna College in California – previously tied at No. 9 – dropped down to a tie at No. 11.
There were a few changes among the top Regional Universities, schools that offer bachelor's degrees, some master's programs and limited options at the doctoral level. In the North, after previously holding the No. 1 spot alone, Providence College in Rhode Island now ties with Bentley University in Massachusetts and Rhode Island School of Design at the top. Butler University in Indiana retained the No. 1 ranking in the Midwest and Rollins College in Florida again is No. 1 in the South. Switching spots from the prior year, California Polytechnic State University—San Luis Obispo is now in the top spot in the West, while the University of Portland in Oregon moved down to No. 2.
Of the ranked Regional Colleges, schools that focus on undergraduate education but award fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts fields, the United States Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut remains No. 1 in the North, as does High Point University in North Carolina in the South and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—Prescott in Arizona in the West. But Illinois Wesleyan University rose by two in the Midwest rankings to claim the top spot.
Looking across all colleges, some public schools, which are operated and partially funded by state governments, ranked higher than previously – especially in large diverse states, like California, New York and Texas. That's because the methodology now looks more at the return on investment, earnings, debt, Pell recipients and first-generation students, according to the U.S. News data team, which are factors public schools generally performed well on.
The University of California, Davis, for instance, rose by 10 in the National Universities rankings this year and now ties with University of California, San Diego, the University of Florida and the University of Southern California for the No. 28 spot. Private colleges, on the other hand, may have benefited more from the previously used factors, like alumni giving.
Additional College Rankings to Consider
The top public National Universities changed only slightly from last year. The University of California—Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley are still tied for No. 1 in their category. The University of Michigan—Ann Arbor retained the same rank as last year at No. 3. The University of Virginia dropped by two to No. 5 and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillwent up one to No. 4.
Families can use several U.S. News tools to search and compare colleges as well as explore a vast range of data available on school profile pages, including detailed information on tuition, application fees and deadlines, popular majors and financial aid.
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