What changed in how the 2020 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings were calculated?

Today marks the 35th edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. Over the decades, U.S. News has published data on colleges and universities to help prospective students and their families make the important — and costly — decision about where to go to college.

While the metrics have changed — such as a greater focus on outcome measures like graduation rates, retention rates and social mobility indicators — the mission behind Best Colleges has always remained the same. Whether students are looking for the Best Value Schools and A-plus Schools for B Students or want information on campus life and tuition, U.S. News publishes data to help students pick the best school for them.

New this year, U.S. News published additional rankings for schools — namely the Top Performers on Social Mobility and Academic Programs to Look For, such as co-ops/internships and first-year experiences. Additionally, the overall ranking categories were adjusted per the Carnegie classification system, which puts schools in different playing fields. The overall ranking methodology was also enhanced. The following is a more detailed look at the changes to this year’s rankings.

— Ranking categories

— Top Performers on Social Mobility

— Ranking factors

— New educational data and rankings published online

Ranking Categories

U.S. News groups colleges into categories based on the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, the most widely accepted classification system in U.S. higher education. The Carnegie classification system has been used by U.S. News since the first Best Colleges rankings in 1983. In December 2018, Carnegie released official updates — called the “2018 update” — to the Basic Classification used for Best Colleges.

As a result, about 13% of ranked schools moved into different categories compared with last year, and more schools are added in the National Universities list. For example, a university ranked previously as a Regional University may now be a National University. We do not recommend making year-over-year comparisons for schools that changed categories because the comparisons would not be valid.

Institutions in Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories are rank-eligible for the first time. Specialized schools that are not eligible for the rankings are now consistently designated on usnews.com by focuses such as arts, business, engineering, health, technology, medicine, law or faith.

Top Performers on Social Mobility

For benchmarking purposes, U.S. News has published two new ranks: a social mobility rank and an outcomes rank that appear in the ranking factors section of all schools’ usnews.com directories. The brand new Top Performers on Social Mobility ranking also displays schools in order of these social mobility ranks.

Although both ranks’ underlying data contribute toward schools’ overall ranks, the ranks themselves do not. Nonetheless, these will enable prospective students, parents and institutions to be able to compare institutions on related ranking factors.

The social mobility ranking is computed from performance on the two ranking factors pertaining to enrolling and graduating high proportions of students who were awarded Pell Grants. One is the Pell Grant graduation rates ranking factor that examines this on a standalone level; the other is the Pell Grant graduation rate performance ranking factor that compares a school’s graduation rates of students who were awarded Pell Grants with its graduation rates for all other undergraduates.

The outcomes rank encompasses these two factors as well, but also includes three other factors: average six-year graduation rates, average first-year retention rates and graduation rate performance, totaling 35% of a school’s overall score.

Ranking Factors

U.S. News evaluates schools based on measures of academic quality, including outcomes, expert opinions, student excellence and more. Also this year, U.S. News continued to evolve the methodology in an effort to publish more rigorous rankings.

New this year, the proportion of students who are first-generation college students was added to the graduation rate performance calculations, which determines whether schools are exceeding U.S. News’ expectations in graduating their students.

In effect, this gave 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 came from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Also, graduation rate performance newly incorporated a multiyear average instead of a single cohort of undergraduates to calculate the proportion of a school’s student body that received Pell Grants.

Further, both ranking factors that measure school success in enrolling and graduating Pell Grant students were computed using two-year averages of the fall 2011 and fall 2012 entering cohorts that graduated six years later. In the 2019 edition, the first year these social mobility measures were introduced into the rankings, only the fall 2011 entering cohort had been used. The two-year averages of two cohorts were used to reduce year-to-year volatility in these factors.

Additionally, expert opinion has been a core part of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings for decades because these officials — fellow presidents, provosts and admissions deans — are in the best position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic quality.

In the past, U.S. News also included high school counselor opinions as part of the expert opinion ranking factor for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges. It had never been included as a ranking indicator in the Regional Universities and Regional Colleges methodology. New this year, U.S. News discontinued that ranking factor in part because U.S. News had greater confidence in the data and the significantly increased response rates from the peer assessment surveys. Thus, expert opinion remains at 20% of the methodology.

Likewise, we changed how the graduation and retention rate numerical benchmark ranking was calculated. The graduation and retention rate numerical ranking published on usnews.com and in print for the 2020 edition of Best Colleges is once again based on 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 alone, 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 compared with all other students.

Also new for the 2020 rankings, the faculty compensation figures were adjusted using open-source data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, or BEA, regional price parities 2017 dataset published in May 2019. U.S. News changed to open-source data in part because of its increased transparency. These regional price indexes allow comparison from one metro area to another and measure the differences in price levels across states and metropolitan areas for a given year. Metropolitan regions are linked to core-based statistical areas, or CBSAs, as defined by the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget using census data.

Financial resources cohorts were better aligned so that fiscal year 2018 spending was compared with fall 2017 enrollment and fiscal year 2017 spending was compared with fall 2016 enrollment.

Additionally, U.S. News adjusted how it factors high school class standing depending on the amount of data reported. New this year, when schools reported class standing data on fewer than 10% of their fall 2018 new entrants, they received an estimate instead of having their scores discounted as was done previously. Schools that had less than 20% of new entrants with high school class standing and greater than 10% still had their scores discounted in this ranking factor. This was unchanged from previous editions.

Also, all 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% in previous editions.

Alumni giving data sourced from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education was no longer used for nonresponding schools, although the rankings impact is minimal because in previous years very few schools that had reported data for CASE had not completed the alumni giving questions in the U.S. News statistical survey. Schools that didn’t report alumni giving data received an estimate.

Much greater use of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, was used as substitute data for schools that did not enter in U.S. News’ statistical survey elements related to faculty compensation, financial resources, Pell graduation rates and Pell graduation rate performance. These ranking factors contribute 22% in total to colleges’ overall scores and led to changes in the rankings among nonresponding schools since U.S. News used more third-party data for them.

In total in the 2020 edition of the rankings, for nonresponders third-party data is now used in 62% of the 80% of the rankings formula based on statistical data.

U.S. News adjusted faculty salary data from IPEDS for schools that didn’t report faculty compensation on the U.S. News statistical survey before use in its rankings to account for different definitions between the Common Data Set, on which U.S. News’ data collection is based, and the federal government.

New Educational Data and Rankings Published Online

For the first time since 2003, U.S. News ranked schools on the following programs that have been proven to enhance learning outcomes and a student’s academic experience: first-year experiences, co-ops/internships, learning communities, senior capstone, service learning, study abroad, undergraduate research/creative projects and writing in the disciplines.

Additionally new to many usnews.com directory profiles this year is enrollment broken out by in-state and out-of-state students; transportation options such as bike-sharing and car-sharing services; programs and services for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD; collegiate athletic conference affiliation; and different kinds of financial and legal assistance potentially available to students without a visa or legal status in the U.S.

We also published on usnews.com data sourced from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. This data that pertains only to undergraduates receiving federal financial aid includes average annual cost broken out by income level, borrowing and debt, student body by income and proportion of first-generation households. For the first time, Scorecard data on federal debt was used for our Most Debt and Least Debt lists for the Class of 2017 at graduation.

More from U.S. News

Debunking Myths About U.S. News Best Colleges

Explore the 2020 Best National Universities

See the 2020 Best Liberal Arts Colleges

What Changed in How the 2020 U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings Were Calculated? originally appeared on usnews.com

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up