Princeton, Williams Top 2020 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings

With thousands of colleges across the U.S., educational options are abundant for students.

But navigating that landscape can prove difficult with so many colleges competing for the attention of a limited pool of students. Considering the high cost of paying for college and the need to find a program that will lead to jobs after graduation, the decision of where to go to school is one that looms large for many families. Cost and postgraduation employment are only two matters families must consider to determine fit, alongside other factors such as academics, location, campus culture and more.

To help students and families better navigate the college journey, U.S. News has released its 2020 Best Colleges rankings. Out today, the rankings have offered guidance to college-bound students and families since the first edition was published in 1983.

The 2020 edition provides data on more than 1,900 colleges, with rankings for nearly 1,400 institutions. Schools provide U.S. News with most of the data used to compile these rankings in an annual survey and are asked to confirm the accuracy of their data.

Schools are categorized into rankings such as National Universities, institutions that are often research-oriented and offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees; and National Liberal Arts Colleges, which emphasize undergraduate education and award half or more of their degrees across liberal arts fields. Additionally, regional colleges and universities are split into eight categories dependent on geographic location and whether master’s degrees are offered.

[See: Explore the 2020 Best National Universities.]

More than 200 institutions changed categories this year because the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education — the most widely accepted classification system in U.S. higher education that U.S. News uses in its rankings — updated its system.

U.S. News considers 15 metrics when ranking schools for academic excellence, placing the largest emphasis on a college’s ability to retain and graduate its students. Other factors include class size, undergraduate academic reputation and how much a school spends per student on instruction and other related educational expenses.

The 2020 Best Colleges rankings mark the second year that U.S. News has included social mobility in its methodology; last year, school acceptance rates were removed to add this factor. The social mobility metric considers graduation rates for students who received federal Pell Grants, financial aid that is typically reserved for those with annual household family incomes below $50,000.

How Colleges Performed in the Rankings

The top two spots in the Best Colleges rankings among National Universities remain unchanged. Princeton University in New Jersey is ranked No. 1, followed by Harvard University in Massachusetts at No. 2. Three schools are tied in the No. 3 slot: Columbia University in New York, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University in Connecticut.

The universities comprising last year’s top 10, including ties, remain the same albeit with some moving up and others down in the rankings. The University of Chicago slipped from a tie at No. 3 to a tie at No. 6; Stanford University in California climbed one spot from No. 7 last year to a tie at No. 6; and Duke University in North Carolina moved down from a tie at No. 8 to a tie at No. 10 in this year’s rankings.

Overall, the top 50 National Universities rankings held largely steady this year with no major leaps up the chart. Further down in the rankings, schools that did noticeably move up include the University of California–Merced, which improved from a tie at No. 136 to a tie at No. 104, and the University of South Florida, which jumped from a tie at No. 124 to a tie at No. 104. Schools that moved down significantly in these rankings include Regent University in Virginia, which fell 80 spots from a tie at No. 201 to a tie at No. 281, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, which dipped from a tie at No. 201 to a tie at No. 272.

For Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College and Amherst College, both in Massachusetts, stayed at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Wellesley College in Massachusetts also remain tied in the No. 3 slot. A new school cracked the top 10 this year, with Washington and Lee University in Virginia moving up from a tie at No. 11 to reclaim the No. 10 spot it tied for in the 2018 edition of the rankings. The biggest drop from the top 10 was Davidson College in North Carolina, which moved down from No. 10 to a tie at No. 17. Davidson was the only school to fall out of the top 10.

[See: 2020 Best Liberal Arts Colleges.]

Fluctuation among the ranks saw some liberal arts schools climb up nearly 30 spots while others fell by almost the same number. Wells College in New York moved up from being listed with a ranking range of 173-229, indicating that it fell in the bottom quarter of the rankings last year, to a tie at No. 124. Likewise, Reed College in Oregon improved from a tie at No. 90 last year to tie at No. 68. Schools trending downward include Marlboro College in Vermont, from a tie at No. 116 to a tie at No. 136. Similarly, Sweet Briar College in Virginia fell from a tie at No. 127 last year to a tie for No. 154 in the 2020 Best Colleges rankings.

There were some shifts in the rankings of Regional Universities as well, which are schools that offer bachelor’s degrees, some master’s programs and limited options at the doctoral level. In the North, Providence College in Rhode Island moved up one slot to No. 1, while Fairfield University in Connecticut — last year’s No. 1 — slipped to No. 3. In the South, Florida’s Rollins College moved up from No. 2 to No. 1. In the Midwest, Butler University in Indiana claimed the top spot alone after having tied for No. 1 last year. In the West, Trinity University in Texas moved up from No. 2 last year to No. 1.

The shakeup among top-ranked Regional Universities comes in part due to the reclassification of schools that were previously atop the rankings in their respective categories. Elon University in North Carolina, Creighton University in Nebraska and Santa Clara University in California all moved over from the Regional Universities category to National Universities in the 2020 rankings. Previously each school claimed the top spot in the South, Midwest and West, respectively.

There were almost no changes at the very top spots among Regional Colleges, schools that focus on undergraduate education but award fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts fields. Remaining at No. 1 in the North is Cooper Union in New York; High Point University in North Carolina again topped the rankings in the South; Taylor University in Indiana took sole possession of No. 1 in the Midwest after tying for the top spot last year; and Carroll College in Montana repeats as No. 1 in the West.

More College Rankings to Consider

Beyond institution type and geographic location, U.S. News ranks schools in other categories. One additional category is Top Public Schools, which are colleges and universities operated and partially funded by state governments. The top-ranked public institution among National Universities is the University of California–Los Angeles. Following UCLA, at No. 2, is the University of California–Berkeley. The University of Michigan–Ann Arbor rounds out the third spot among Top Public Schools, displacing the University of Virginia, the prior No. 3.

U.S. News also ranks Best Value Schools, which considers the college’s academic quality alongside the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid. Among National Universities, Princeton retained its top spot, offering need-based grants to 61% of undergraduate students for an average cost of $16,438 after disbursement of this aid, according to U.S. News data. Harvard and Yale followed at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. MIT, displaced by Yale, moved down one spot to No. 4, and Stanford followed in the next slot, rounding out the top 5.

[Read: How to Use the Best Colleges Rankings Wisely.]

The top three Best Value Schools among National Liberal Arts Colleges remain unchanged. Williams — which awarded need-based grants to 52% of its student population in the 2018-2019 academic year — is again No 1. Pomona College in California came in at No. 2, followed by Amherst at No. 3.

U.S. News ranks schools across other categories as well, including Best Colleges for Veterans and, new this year, the Top Performers on Social Mobility. Other new additions include rankings of schools with key academic programs students may want to look for, such as first-year experiences, co-op and internship programs, and study abroad opportunities.

In addition to the various rankings, U.S. News offers tools to search and compare colleges and explore a broad range of data available on school profile pages, including information on tuition, application fees and deadlines, popular majors and financial aid. Applicants can also compare postgraduate salary data collected by PayScale, which is displayed on many U.S. News school profile pages.

Looking for full rankings information? Access the U.S. News College Compass to find all published data points, including student debt and employment statistics.

More from U.S. News

Debunking Myths About U.S. News Best Colleges

What a Liberal Arts College Is and What Students Should Know

A Complete Guide to the College Application Process

Princeton, Williams Top 2020 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings originally appeared on

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