College Rankings & Ratings

Overview

College Rankings & Ratings

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from open-enrollment community colleges to highly selective Ivy League institutions, from colleges with historical missions to educate the underserved to universities exploring the cutting edge of online education.

So—which college is the best in the nation?

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from open-enrollment community colleges to highly selective Ivy League institutions, from colleges with historical missions to educate the underserved to universities exploring the cutting edge of online education.

So—which college is the best in the nation?

This conflict between acknowledging the full variety of colleges—each with its own role to play and students to serve—and attempting to identify which schools are most successful at leading their graduates to fulfilling lives and careers is the core challenge that any attempt to rank colleges and universities faces. Yet despite this considerable hurdle, in recent years the number of outlets offering college rankings lists has proliferated and is likely to continue to grow as federal and state governments release more data on postsecondary institutions. The rankings published by U.S. News & World Report were the first, arriving on newsstands in 1983. But since then, many other outlets have joined the fray, including Washington Monthly, Money magazine, The Economist, The New York Times’ Upshot, Forbes, and several others.

Indeed, in 2013 President Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Education would produce its own system for rating higher education institutions, though notably this proposed effort would only have given colleges a score, not rank them as the media lists do. But after nearly two years of discussions with college administrators and researchers, the department decided not to produce ratings, opting instead just to release more data about these institutions, including the average salary for students 10 years after they enrolled.

The department’s decision to abandon its ratings proposal, after facing criticism from many parts of the higher education community, demonstrates how challenging it can be to measure a college’s performance and the consequences that a particular rating or ranking could have for that institution. The federal agency originally sought to use the ratings as a tool for holding colleges more accountable, perhaps even tying an institution’s students’ eligibility to receive financial aid to how well the school performed by the Education Department’s measures. But, for example, if a college’s graduation rate becomes a key part of the rating, would two-year colleges or other institutions with high transfer rates receive unfavorable ratings?

Even though colleges and universities typically do not face any direct accountability for their ranking in the lists published by media outlets, these rankings are widely considered to have substantial impact on the ways some postsecondary institutions operate, as they seek more favorable rankings. From which types of students they seek to enroll to how they allocate their financial resources for faculty and campus development, administrators and trustees often have to consider how important a rise or fall on the list might be to the their institutions’ reputations and revenue.

Journalists should approach writing about college rankings and ratings with insight that goes beyond the rank or score a college received—and whether it’s up or down this year—to offer analysis on how and why the institution measured up that way in that particular list.  The best way to achieve these deeper insights is to explore the data used to create the ranking. Most college rankings start with the data available publicly through the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal organization that collects and analyzes these numbers. There is a wealth of information available from this resource, but journalists should note that for each institution, the reported data are only for students who were first-time, full-time enrollees in college. This means that for institutions that enroll many adults who are returning to school (e.g. community colleges) or accept many transfer students (regional public universities), the NCES data might not be the most accurate representation of how well the college is serving its students. This note of caution is particularly relevant for the data regarding graduation and retention rates.

College rankings increasingly are using data that reflect the earning potential of students at each institution. In the fall of 2015, the College Scorecard the federal government produces for the first time added data for the average income for students at each college 10 years after they enrolled. These data are a boon for researchers, rankers, journalists, and—of course—students and families. It should be noted, however, that these data are for all students who enrolled that year, regardless of whether they graduated. For colleges in which many students drop out or transfer before earning a degree, the earnings number reported on the Scorecard is likely lower than it might be for actual graduates of that institution. These scorecard data also are for the institution overall, not program-by-program, so reporters should examine whether the college produces many graduates in science, engineering, or business disciplines, for instance, that might be tipping the scales.

Several state education departments do gather earnings data at the program level for colleges and universities in their borders. Check with your department to see whether it collects such data that you might use to cross-check what you see listed in rankings.

When reporting about rankings, also look to see whether the publisher gathers any proprietary data. For example, U.S. News & World Report each year commissions a survey of the top administrators of every college in an effort to measure each institution’s reputation. And, on the opposite end, the Princeton Review surveys more than 100,000 college students across the country each year to find the nation’s best party schools and least happy students.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

How Georgia State Dramatically Changed Its Graduation Rate (and How Other Universities Can, Too)

In 2006, Georgia State University had a problem. The graduation rate was an abysmal 41 percent. And in many cases, the dropouts were seniors who just needed a few credits more to earn their bachelor’s degree.

Unlike many other colleges struggling with high dropout rates, Georgia State took (in many cases, expensive) actions that seem to have actually worked. Today, 53 percent of their freshmen graduate within six years.

EWA Radio

Why Public Research Universities Are Struggling
Higher education enrollment downturns, federal funding predictions, and how U.S. global competitiveness could be at risk.

For a growing number of public universities, particularly in the midwest, what was once a push for academic excellence is now more like a battle for survival, as detailed by The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus in a new piece for Washington Monthly. What happened? Enrollment drops, funding cuts and shifting public attitudes toward higher education.

Latest News

Feds Measure Graduation Rates of Part-time and Transfer Students for the First Time

The National Center for Education Statistics is out this morning with a major development in higher education data, results from the Outcome Measures survey. The survey for the first time ever shows how part-time and transfer students in college are progressing toward graduation. Historically the federal government has only tracked outcomes measures — namely graduation rates — for first-time, full-time college-goers. But those students account for fewer than half of college students, and the data out today provide a much more complete picture than we’ve ever had before.

Seminar

Higher Ed 2017: Covering Campus Conflict in the Time of Trump
Atlanta • October 2–3, 2017

From heated debates over free speech to the Trump administration’s threats to deport undocumented students, these are tense times on college campuses. For reporters who cover higher education, questions abound and important stories need to be told. 

On Oct. 2-3, EWA will bring together journalists at Georgia State University in Atlanta to explore pressing issues in education after high school. (Here’s the preliminary agenda.) At this journalist-only seminar you will hear:

Latest News

America’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners

In college, as in life, youth and glamor go together. The top schools on the U.S. News & World Report rankings and similar college lists recruit virtually all of their freshmen right out of high school—or perhaps after a “gap year” spent, say, saving baby sea turtles in Australia.

By contrast, colleges that cater to adult students, the kind with jobs and families, aren’t given much attention or credit by the usual gatekeepers.

Latest News

The Blessing and Curse of Fundraising for Higher Education

Can you name the top three American universities that raised the most money last year?

If Harvard topped your list, you’re right. The nation’s oldest institution of higher education raised $1.19 billion in the 2016 fiscal year. Perhaps some other Ivy League universities made your list, like Yale or Columbia, or that basketball juggernaut, Duke, or those Midwestern universities that seem to have tons of loyal alumni, like Notre Dame or Michigan.

Member Stories

August 4 – 10
Here's what we're reading by EWA members this week

KPPC’s Kyle Stokes reports that while vaccination rates in California schools reached an all-time high in the prior academic year, one subset of public schools still appears to be lagging behind: charter schools.

 
 

Jenny Rankin provides commentary for the L.A. Times on why 41% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.


 

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Study Shows Sharp Drop in Republican Support for Higher Ed

Views toward higher education have become increasingly more partisan over the past couple of years, a new survey by the Pew Research Center shows.

The national survey, conducted in early June among 2,504 adults, showed that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges have a negative effect on the country, compared to 19 percent for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

New Poll Finds Adults Have Second Thoughts About Their College Experiences

During a graduation season when congratulations are the usual fare, regret instead was the main course during an Education Writers Association seminar session about higher education polling. The potentially lucrative major discarded or the campus that could have become your beloved alma mater but didn’t: These were the emotional subjects tackled, backed with research methods of opinion surveys.  

Blog: Latino Ed Beat

How Latino Parents Judge School Quality

So how do Latino parents judge the quality of their child’s school? The good old-fashioned way: by reviewing their child’s report card.

A recent poll conducted by the Leadership Conference Fund, a nonprofit civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., found that 86 percent of Latino families said their child’s report card topped the list in judging school quality.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

10 Things You Should Know About Earnings After College

Go to college, get a better job. That’s the message at the heart of the nation’s ongoing efforts to encourage a wider array of students to attain degrees. But college’s effects on graduates’ earnings is complex, varied and often misunderstood. While a bachelor’s degree clearly matters, where and what a student studies can be just as important as whether the student graduates with a degree at all.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

New Poll: College Grads Unhappy With the Career Services They’re Getting
More than half say their career offices were unhelpful or only somewhat helpful

Universities and colleges may be seen as gateways to good jobs, but many don’t pass the test on providing students useful career advice, according to a new poll.

More than half of college graduates say the career services offices of their alma maters were unhelpful or only somewhat helpful, compared to 43 percent who say the offices were helpful or very helpful, the Gallup-Purdue Index shows.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Public Universities Have ‘Really Lost Our Focus’
Q&A with Christopher Newfield

Since the 1970s, a “doom loop” has pervaded higher education, writes Christopher Newfield in his new book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them. Newfield, a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls this loop “privatization” – the hidden and overt ways that “business practices restructure teaching and research.”

Blog: The Educated Reporter

How Will Education Fare Under President Trump?

The long, strange election cycle came to an end Tuesday with the election of Donald Trump as the next president. And while his campaign platform was scarce on education policy details, there’s no question his administration will have a significant impact, from early childhood to K-12 and higher education.

Seminar

Doing More With Higher Ed Data: From Policy to Newsrooms
Philadelphia • February 2–3, 2017

With colleges and universities under increased pressure to ensure that more students earn degrees without amassing mountains of debt, journalists are at the forefront in examining how these institutions  measure up. But there’s one major obstacle that both colleges and reporters share when it comes to making sense of how well these schools are meeting their goals: insufficient data.

Webinar

Know the Score: Finding Stories in College Scorecard Data

Know the Score: Finding Stories in College Scorecard Data

How many first-generation students does a college have? How much does the school charge students from families earning $30,000 versus more than $75,000? And how many students are repaying their student loan debt three years after college?

Report

Proposed Student Finance Regulations May Hamper Small Institutions
The Brookings Institution

In June, the U.S. Department of Education released a 530-page set of proposed regulations on the topic of ‘defense to repayment.’ Although this sounds like an obscure topic (and reading the document is no picnic!), these proposed rules, if adopted, could allow students to be able to have their student loan debt forgiven if colleges misrepresented themselves to students. The Department of Education is currently working through this process forformer Corinthian Colleges students, and tens of thousands more students could be eligible under the proposed rules.

Seminar

Election 2016: New President, New Education Agenda
Washington, D.C. • November 14, 2016

The election of Republican Donald Trump is sure to reshape federal policy for education in significant ways, from prekindergarten to college, especially coupled with the GOP’s retaining control of Congress.

Although Trump spent relatively little time on education in his campaign, he did highlight the issue from time to time, from his sharp criticism of the Common Core and high student debt loads to proposing a plan to significantly expand school choice. And Congress has a long to-do list, including reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Higher Education and the 2016 Presidential Election

Flickr/Michael Vadon (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The first total solar eclipse to sweep across the entire continental United States in 38 years will occur on August 21, 2017. Don’t expect reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) anytime before then.

The HEA expired at the end of 2013 and it’s likely nothing will happen with it in an election year or soon thereafter, agreed a panel of journalists discussing key higher education issues and the 2016 presidential election, at the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Boston in May.

EWA Radio

Competitive College Admissions: Too Much Hype?

Flickr/Wayne Stadler

Are education reporters unwittingly contributing to the hysteria over elite college admissions? What do policymakers say needs to be done to ramp down the tension without dimming enthusiasm among students? And how did the perception of college admissions as inaccessible to most — when the reverse is actually more accurate — become so pervasive?

Seminar

Higher Ed 2016
September 16–17 • Tempe, Arizona

What new techniques and practices should higher education embrace to ensure that more students graduate? Join the Education Writers Association September 16–17 at Arizona State University to explore cutting-edge innovations that aim to address financial, academic, and social barriers. More on the seminar theme.

This annual seminar is one of the largest gatherings of journalists covering postsecondary education. Network with others covering this beat and step up your coverage for the upcoming academic year.

Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona
Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Radio: Here Are Your Favorites of 2015

It’s been a terrific year for our scrappy little podcast, and we’re thrilled to report an equally stellar lineup coming to EWA Radio in 2016.  

I’d like to take a moment to thank the many journalists and education experts who made time to join us for lively conversations, and to all of you who have offered suggestions for stories and guests to feature. Please keep the feedback coming! 

Here’s a quick rundown of the 10 most popular episodes of the year:

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Money Magazine’s College Rankings Examine How Much ‘Value’ Students Get

The folks at Money magazine are largely doing the work the White House sought to do but hasn’t: rate colleges and universities by the extra boost they give students in landing financially rewarding careers.

Released this week, Money’s rating system ranks more than 700 schools according to an in-house rubric for measuring how much value a college offers students given its price of attendance. 

EWA Radio

After Pushback, White House Yields on College Ratings
EWA Radio: Episode 28

After nearly two years of public debate, and vociferous pushback from the higher education community, the White House announced it is pulling back on plans to rate the nation’s colleges based on a complex matrix of performance measures and student outcomes. Paul Fain, news editor for Inside Higher Ed has been following this story closely since the beginning, and he helped break the news that the Obama administration was scrapping the most controversial parts of its original proposal.

He spoke with EWA public editor Emily Richmond about who’s surprised by the decision (hint: not a lot of people), and the role played by aggressive lobbying against the rating plan by much of the higher education community. Fain and Richmond also discussed college ratings and consumer tools already available, and how to answer parents and students who ask for advice on choosing a school.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Experts: The White House Plan to Rate Colleges Has Major Issues

Michelle Asha Cooper(L), director of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, speaks at the Higher Education Seminar put on by the Education Writers Association and hosted by Southern Methodist University (Credit: SMU 2014, Photo by Kim Leeson)

A new rating system backed by the White House aims to evaluate nearly all of the nation’s colleges and universities. Roughly 6,000 schools that educate around 22 million students are about to endure an unprecedented amount of federal scrutiny.

And though a version of the Postsecondary Institution Ratings System is scheduled to be unveiled in the fall, policy watchers are still unsure of what’s in store.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Follow-Up Friday: Catch Up with EWA Radio

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for EWA Radio, the podcast I co-host with my EWA colleague Mikhail Zinshteyn. In case you missed the most recent episodes, you can catch the replays. (I’ve been told we make a fine accompaniment to walking the dog, moderate-paced elliptical trainer activity and even the occasional lunchtime Greek yogurt consumption.)