US University Ranking Explained

Posted 21 September 2015
US University ranking

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With so many reputed publications ranking more than 4,000 universities in the USA, what really matters when selecting an American university that is an ideal fit? Read on to understand how universities in the USA are ranked, and how important that rank is in choosing your university for undergraduate or graduate study.

If you think the US university ranking system is as difficult to understand as a foreign language, then you're not alone. American and international students alike talk about "great schools". Marketers use rank as a way to promote a school to prospective students. But what does this all mean?

The US News and World Report is by far the most established ranking system of American universities, with The Princeton Review and Newsweek following close. These institutions examine and analyze every imaginable trait of the university—from the number of books in the library to the student satisfaction of the faculty. However, there are many other publications that judge and rank universities on several different criteria, including the Bloomberg Businessweek and The Wall Street Journal, among others. 

Sometimes it feels like the myriad characteristics and qualifications of a school are put together like a magic potion and—"Poof!"—the rank comes out. Believe it or not, there is a method to all these numbers.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's 'Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education' divides colleges into a number of geographic categories that are determined using campus size, academic offerings, location, and student population dynamics. The Foundation breaks down the universities into the following four categories: 

  • national universities
  • national liberal arts colleges
  • regional universities
  • regional colleges

The US News and World Report then evaluates 16 "indicators of excellence", which fall into the following categories:

  • Undergraduate academic reputation
  • Student selectivity for the last entering class
  • Faculty resources for the last academic year
  • Graduation and retention rates
  • Financial resources
  • Alumni giving
  • Graduation rate performance

Since 1983, this system has been the cornerstone of the "Best Colleges" sorting system in the United States.

Does rank really matter when selecting your university? The best answer would be: "It depends." The reputation of a school, for example, plays a part in its rank, but doesn't necessarily guarantee top faculty or resources. Often, schools that have a narrow focus (e.g. music, film and design schools) often get lost in the crowd. Furthermore, each student has different priorities, so rankings may or may not apply. The unique benefit of school ranking, however, is the third party nature of the evaluation - an objective evaluation of numbers based on data collected through various resources including student surveys.

Advice for international students: Use college and university rank as a spring board for your search. Knowing the university's rank is a great place to start. Consider what else you're looking for in your university experience —campus size and location, facilities, support services, research opportunities — and evaluate all of the components.

Learn more about US university rankings