Each September, as the college application season begins for countless 12th graders, US News & World Report releases their updated Best National University Rankings. While you can also find lists like “Top Liberal Arts Colleges,” “Best Research Universities,” and “Best Global Universities” on US News – this National Rankings list may be the most relevant for students finalizing their list of US Colleges and Universities for application season.
If you are a high school student with your sights fixed on attending a top university in the US, it’s worthwhile to spend some time understanding the why behind these rankings. Ultimately, the school you attend should be the best fit for you– and rankings can be as big or as small a part of that equation as you make them. Here at Veritas Education, we empower students to make informed decisions on their college application journey. In the following article, we hope to shed some light on the changes in the National Rankings from last year to this year so students know how to use this tool.
In its 39th edition of Best National Universities, US News adjusted the weight for many of their indicators and even dropped 5 longstanding factors usually used to determine ranking.
For the 2024 rankings, released on September 17, 2023, the following are the top 5 weighted factors that impacted college ranking. Simply put, they are the most important factors for US News:
Graduation rate performance
Financial resources per student
Of course, the team putting this list together considered other factors related to Pell grant recipients, student-faculty ratio, and earning rates post-graduation. You can see a full breakdown of the factors here: How US News Calculated the Rankings.
The following are the 5 factors that previously impacted ranks, but were not considered in the 2024 rankings:
Terminal degree faculty
Alumni giving average
Graduate debt proportion borrowing
High school class standing
By removing these factors, we can see how barriers were removed for larger state schools to earn high rankings. For example, when alumni giving average is factored in, it rewards schools that attract students of a higher socioeconomic status and penalizes schools who welcome a more socioeconomically diverse student body.
Consider class sizes— when class sizes are not taken into account, larger universities are no longer penalized for serving larger student populations. Let’s compare UC Berkeley and Stanford, both California schools with highly sought after admission. At UC Berkeley, the larger state school, you can expect 50% of your classes to have fewer than 20 students. While at Stanford, nearly 70% of classes have fewer than 20 students. The University of Chicago, which notably dropped 6 seats this year, released an official statement citing the removal of the class size factor as one of the key reasons for the change in ranking. The University stated that small class sizes are a key feature of the UChicago educational experience and have long been capped at 19 students for core classes.
This focus on socioeconomic status comes across clearly when you take note that US News gives more weight to factors related to social mobility this year. Social mobility refers to how well schools support and graduate economically disadvantaged students, including Pell grant recipients and First Generation students. Considering the graduation rates and graduation performance of First Generation students is a brand new factor in the National Universities ranking. Therefore, universities who have a greater focus on equity and attracting First Gen students may be shown rising higher in the rankings this year.
Effect on Rankings
Veritas Education compared the 2023 and 2024 rankings of Top 20 schools as well as additional private and state schools that the students we serve are historically interested in attending. Below you can examine the change in rankings, noticing some small shifts and some strikingly large changes.
After analyzing the data, one pattern that emerged was the average increase in rankings among state schools. Among the 35 schools we focused our analysis on, state schools ranked on average 3.4 spots higher than last year, while Ivy leagues on average ranked 1 spot higher and private schools averaged a 2.8 drop in ranking. This could have been predicted by looking closely at the change in methodology as explained by US News. As explained above, removing the factor of alumni giving average opens up the possibility of high rankings for non-Ivy league institutions and, in general, institutions with a greater proportion of economically disadvantaged students– i.e. many public universities.
If you take rankings into account when making a school list, take note of schools who are rising in rank throughout the years. Virginia Tech jumped 15 spots from last year! The change in rank is both due to the new methodology US News instituted and evidence of improvement in student outcomes and satisfaction on these campuses.
Takeaways for Students
We have 3 main takeaways to share with students as they consider what dream, good-fit, and safety schools to add to their list.
Consider your own “Factors”
In our “Methodology” section, we discussed how US News changes the factors and the weight of those factors each year to develop a new ranking list. As you read through our summary or visited the methodology page, you might have found yourself disagreeing with the weight they apply to each factor.
Are faculty salaries less important to you than class sizes? That’s fine– you should feel empowered to consider your own weight for these factors and to consider things US News did not even mention (quality of dorms, accessibility, research opportunities…the list goes on!). As you develop your school list, you are in a sense making your own personal ranking. Which factors will you include?
Seek out various tools
Alongside the National Universities ranking list, US News created 10 lists total that group schools according to their mission. These lists include “Liberal Arts Colleges” for students wanting a smaller, liberal arts focus community, “Best Value Schools” for students prioritizing robust financial aid packages, and “Best Regional Colleges” for students wanting to focus their search on a specific geographic area.
Before looking up any ranking list, students should be advised to think deeply about their priorities. Consider your personal interests, strengths, and needs as a student. Then, seek out tools such as rankings that can help provide insight into where you can explore those interests, build your strengths, and meet those needs as a first-year college student.
Be prepared to adapt
The landscape of college rankings and admission is always changing! Take standardized testing for example, more and more colleges are moving towards a permanent test-optional policy. And with the recent SCOTUS decision on race-based admissions, many schools are drastically adjusting how they evaluate the holistic package of each applicant to be in compliance. The college application process can feel overwhelming with all the various parts of the application from essays and recommendations, to interviews and campus visits. But taking care with each of these pieces will help you earn admission into the best match for you, whether ranking is important to you or not.
Veritas Education is here to provide individualized support to students and their families as they navigate this ever-changing process. Our advisors and essay reviewers are actively working to remain knowledgeable and up-to-date each application cycle. While recently attending the NACAC conference, our team members got unique insight into how Virginia Tech evaluates student GPA– yet another brand new change!
We find it important to explain the methodology behind the rankings because students tend to get bogged down in where a school ranks. While a change in rank from year to year may reflect the real experiences of some students and faculty members from these schools, in actuality, the ranking is an indicator of the schools performance on a number of very specific indicators decided on by the US News team. At Veritas Education, we encourage students to be attentive and critical thinkers as they navigate school selection to pick the best fit for them and for their future goals.
No matter where you are in your college journey-- Veritas Education can help! We offer various opportunities for students who are just beginning to think about colleges, or 12th graders who are in the midst of the process.
If you are interested in speaking with a member of our team regarding college advising services, please visit us at https://www.uscecc.org/college-planning to learn more.
This Fall, we are offering a group seminar in college advising to 9th graders, beginning October 28th.
Throughout November, we are offering interview preparation sessions for students preparing for alumni interviews. Register HERE!