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The 2018 U.S. News and World Report College Rankings: What You Need to Know

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It’s that time again! As a new school year starts and high school seniors begin their college applications in earnest, U.S. News and World Report has released the most recent edition of its annual college rankings.


After gathering information about over 1,600 schools, U.S. News has compiled nearly fifty ranked lists of colleges. Some rank the nation’s colleges and universities in broad categories; others cover specialized topics, such as the best undergraduate business programs or the schools that offer the best value for their tuition.


The U.S. News rankings aren’t the only resource you should consult when making decisions about your college applications, and they don’t consider every important factor. However, the publication is a well-regarded and popular tool for learning more about schools that interest you, and perusing the list might even introduce you to options you hadn’t previously considered.


Read on for CollegeVine’s take on the 2018 U.S. News college rankings, the surprises and changes you’ll find in this year’s report, and our advice on how to use these rankings when you’re researching and considering colleges.


How does U.S. News come up with college rankings?

The U.S. News college rankings start with a lengthy survey, which the publication distributes to eligible colleges. Not all colleges are eligible; only those which award bachelor’s degrees and are regionally accredited are considered. This year, 1,611 colleges were surveyed.


Colleges self-report much of their own data, which U.S. News later fact-checks and uses in its evaluation. When colleges don’t provide enough information, U.S. News fills in the blanks using other data collected by the government and private educational organizations.


U.S. News collects a great deal of information, and a full description of its criteria, weighting system, and other policies is too long to include here. To learn more about the methodologies used to determine the overall U.S. News college rankings as well as specialized college lists, you can visit the U.S. News “About the Rankings/Methodology” guide online.


The short version of this explanation is that U.S. News ranks schools based on factors that it considers important in determining the overall quality of a college. Some of these factors include selectivity in admissions, reputation among peer institutions and among high school guidance counselors, graduation rate, and alumni giving. U.S. News has established standardized ways in which they measure and compare colleges’ performance in these areas.


You may notice that certain factors, such as the opinion of students, don’t appear here. That’s because U.S. News focuses on measures of performance that are quantifiable and that come from people with experience and expertise in the field. While other criteria, like the campus culture, are highly important when determining which colleges are a good fit for your needs, they’re not part of this particular analysis.


Not all colleges surveyed end up in the overall U.S. News rankings. If a school is so different from most schools that a direct comparison is impossible, the school may be designated “unranked.” This can happen if a school is extremely small, has an unusually specialized academic program, or doesn’t record the SAT and/or ACT scores of its students.


Even colleges that are evaluated and ranked by U.S. News don’t always have their ranks published. Rankings are only released publicly for schools that are in the top 75% of their category. Unranked schools and schools with an overall low rank may still appear on U.S. News’s lists of top schools in special categories, which often use different methodologies.


2018: The Rankings Unveiled

Given the sheer number of schools evaluated and the number of different categories and lists U.S. News produces, we can’t reproduce the entirety of the results here. However, for your information, we’ll list the top 10 schools in each of the two most significant categories: national universities and national liberal arts colleges. Below, we’ll also cover the biggest changes found in this year’s rankings.


National Universities

These colleges include some of the best-known schools in the United States. They’re prestigious schools that offer a wide range of undergraduate programs as well as graduate programs, and are known for producing cutting-edge research.


1:   Princeton University

2:   Harvard University

3:   University of Chicago

       Yale University (tie)

5:   Columbia University

6:   Massachusetts Institute of Technology

       Stanford University (tie)

8:   University of Pennsylvania

9:   Duke University

10:  California Institute of Technology


National Liberal Arts Colleges

Top colleges in this category are also extremely well-regarded on a national scale, but are especially focused on providing an exceptional undergraduate program in the traditional liberal arts model rather than on graduate programs and research.


1: Williams College

2: Amherst College

3: Bowdoin College

     Swarthmore College

     Wellesley College (tie)

6: Middlebury College

     Pomona College (tie)

8: Carleton College

     Claremont McKenna College (tie)

10: Davidson College

       Washington and Lee University (tie)


For more ranking lists in specific categories, including regional colleges and universities, best values, top public schools, and many others, visit the 2018 U.S. News and World Report Best College Rankings online.



Changes and Surprises in the 2018 Rankings

Ranked lists of schools are clearly of interest to aspiring college students, but it’s also important to see how these rankings have changed over time. Here’s what’s new this year, both in U.S. News’ approach to evaluations and in the results they’ve released.


Methodological Changes and Added Information

Every year, U.S. News makes changes in its evaluation process in an attempt to more accurately assess colleges. This year is no different. For the 2018 rankings, methodologies were updated slightly in order to calculate and compare graduation rates more accurately given statistical differences between different majors. Other changes aimed to better reflect how well colleges provide access and resources to veterans.


In some areas, U.S. News collected more information than it had in past years. More data was gathered about economic diversity, expressed as the percentage of students at a college who receive Pell grants. Average post-graduation salaries were studied more closely, reflecting interest from students (and parents) in future job prospects.


Information has also been added about some colleges that offer highly specialized undergraduate programs, such as fine art schools and undergraduate schools of business or engineering. These schools are still considered “unranked,” as they can’t be directly compared to typical colleges, but they’re still included on certain specialty lists that U.S. News releases.


Major Movements in the Rankings

As usual, there hasn’t been a great deal of change in the highest echelons of the U.S. News rankings. Changes in large institutions take time, and it would be truly shocking for a major upheaval to take place among these elite schools. However, some changes have occurred, and in the competitive world of higher education, these changes matter.


In the positive direction, MIT and Caltech each rose two positions in the National Universities category, and farther down in that list, UCLA, NYU, and the University of Florida enjoyed gains. In the National Liberal Arts College list, Bowdoin, Swarthmore, and West Point made gains, but the most impressive performance in the upper ranks of the list came from Harvey Mudd, which rose a whopping nine positions.


On the negative side of the balance, Notre Dame and Tufts dropped slightly in the ranks of national universities, while Middlebury, Hamilton, and Haverford sustained losses among liberal arts colleges. Overall, the National Liberal Arts Colleges list saw more movement, both small and large.


Remember, these rankings are relative, so a lower ranking doesn’t necessarily mean that a school has gotten “worse” on an absolute scale. It may simply be that other schools in that category have improved dramatically in the past year. Ties are also possible, which can complicate the rankings. 


How much should these rankings matter to me?

The U.S. News college rankings are certainly popular. They’re flaunted in admissions materials, handed out to parents, and reported upon by many other news sources, even those who also maintain their own college ranking systems. They play a large role in shaping what the average person thinks of as “good” colleges.


However, they’re far from the be-all and end-all of college advice. As you go through the process of researching colleges and compiling your application list, you’ll need to approach these rankings with a critical mind, do your own research, and consider important factors that aren’t addressed in the U.S. News analysis.


As we’ve mentioned, not all colleges are evaluated by U.S. News, and not all evaluated colleges are ranked. Some colleges simply don’t fit into this particular evaluation system very well, and their rankings may suffer for it, but it’s possible they still have attributes that make them compelling choices for you to consider.


The U.S. News rankings are only based upon a limited number of quantitative facts about colleges, so they can’t in themselves express what it really means to live and learn at that school. In order to get that perspective, it’s wise to talk to current and former students, visit campus (if possible), and seek out information about the college from a wide range of sources.


Rankings are definitely a useful tool for learning about colleges, but you can’t rely on rankings alone. To make informed decisions about your college applications, you’ll also need to do more detailed research, consider your own needs and preferences, and think about what kind of college will leave you not only well-educated, but happy and fulfilled.


For more tips on effectively evaluating college ranking lists and interpreting the data they provide, take a look at the CollegeVine blog post College Rankings, Debunked: How Ranking Works, and What it Means for Your College Decision.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.