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University Rankings: Which One Should You Choose?

Oct 4, 2021

University Rankings: Which One Should You Choose?

While most people refer to US News and World Report when searching for college ranking lists, you might have seen some drastically different college rankings across the internet and wondered: why are they so different?

Harvard ranked first in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education’s College Rankings, while UC Berkeley ranked first in Forbes’ America Top Colleges List, and Princeton ranked first in US News and World Report’s Best National University Rankings. Accordingly, it’s important to understand the different methodologies each organization uses to determine its rankings.

Here’s a table of each publication’s rankings:

Wall Street Journal


US News

1. Harvard University
2. Stanford University
3. MIT
4. Yale University
5. Duke University
6. Brown University
7. California Institute of Technology
8. Princeton University
9. Johns Hopkins (tie)
9. Northwestern (tie)

1. UC Berkeley
2. Yale University
3. Princeton University
4. Stanford University
5. Columbia University
6. MIT
7. Harvard
9. UPenn
10. Northwestern

1. Princeton
2. Columbia (#2 tie)
2. Harvard (#2 tie)
2. MIT (#2 tie)
5. Yale
6. Stanford (#6 tie)
6. UChicago (#6 tie)
8. UPenn
9. California Institute of Technology (#9 tie)
9. Duke (#9 tie)

Here’s a table that shows the composition of factors considered in ranking the nation’s top colleges: 



US News

Student Outcomes - 40%
Student Engagement - 20%
Learning Environment - 10%
Academic Resources - 30%

Alumni Salary - 20%
Loan debt per borrower - 15%
Return on Investment - 15%
Graduation Rate - 15%
Retention Rate - 10%
Forbes American Leaders List - 15%
Academic Success - 10%

Average Alumni Giving Rate - 3%
Graduate Indebtedness - 5%
Graduation Rate Performance - 8%
Graduation and Retention Rates - 22% 
Faculty Resources for ‘20-’21 Academic Year - 20%
Financial Resources Per Student - 10%
Student Selectivity for the Fall 2020 Entering Class - 7%
Social Mobility - 5%
Undergraduate Academic Reputation - 20%

The Wall Street Journal rankings give the most weight to student outcomes and academic resources, at 70% of the total score for each school, while learning environment and student engagement make up the other 30% of the score. Looking at the chart, it may seem like the Wall Street Journal considers fewer factors in its ranking system. However, each of the four categories includes most of the factors used by Forbes and US News. Each category is explained below.

Outcomes, or students’ return on investment after graduating, is strongly considered in the WSJ/THE education ranking system. Student outcomes are measured by graduation rate, value added to graduates’ salaries, student loan debt and academic reputation. Beyond student success post-graduation, WSJ heavily considers student’s educational experiences. Academic resources, or how much the university spends on teaching, the faculty per student ratio, and the number of research papers published per faculty member weigh heavily in the WSJ ranking system.

Holding less weight, student engagement is measured by how well students feel they can use their education in real-world settings. Interaction between students and professors and the number of accredited programs are also measured in the engagement category. Student engagement is specifically measured by the US Student Survey, which is carried out by a team of leading market researchers. Students are randomly selected to answer 12 core questions – either multiple choice or on a scale of 0-10 – about their school experience. The learning environment includes consideration of the diversity of the student body and staff, the international student population, and how many undergraduate students are awarded need-based Pell Grants.

If you highly value the quality of education you will receive and the type of job you will land after college, the WSJ/THE rankings are a useful source to consider.

Forbes uses seven factors to evaluate schools with over 300 undergraduates, and UC Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Columbia sit at the top of their list. Not surprisingly, Forbes gives most weight to alumni’s financial success. The largest determinants include alumni salary at 20%, loan debt per borrower at 15%, return on investment at 15%, graduation rate at 15%, and the number of graduates who make it to Forbes American Leaders lists, at 15%. Most importantly, Forbes has instilled recent changes to place more emphasis on a school’s accessibility for students from diverse backgrounds, giving UC schools a boost. UCs offer transfer plans for high-performing California community college students and many incoming freshman and transfer students receive Pell Grants.

If financial success after graduation is one of your top priorities, Forbes’ American Top Colleges List is the ranking for you.

US News and World Report also made recent changes to their 2022 ranking factors by averaging data from the past two years for many factors instead of one year. Slightly more comprehensive in nature, prominent factors consist of graduation and retention rates at 22%, social mobility at 5%, undergraduate academic reputation at 20%, and faculty resources at 20%. They also lowered the evaluation threshold for the percentage of incoming students who submitted standardized test scores in consideration of recent test-optional policy updates.

US News Report measures student selectivity and academic reputation. At a hefty weight of 20%, school reputation is measured by administering peer surveys to top academics including presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions—for the 2022 ratings, only 34.1% of 4,741 academics responded to the questionnaire. Although rated by experts, the small sample size and subjective nature of this category could lend to self-reinforcing rankings.

As US News is the only ranking out of the three to consider the incoming class statistics, consider this source if school reputation takes precedence over other categories for you.

While commonalities across the three sources include student outcomes, available resources, and graduation rates, discrepancies across these rankings reflect different values. So next time you consider school rankings, make sure to look into the factors that place each school at the top!

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