American Culture

Explaining U.S. News’ Best College Rankings


Especially for international students, researching where to study can be intimidating and confusing. One popular resource is the U.S. News Best College rankings. It can be very helpful for comparing American universities and colleges based on academic strength.

Since the U.S. News ranking system is a bit complex, we thought you might like some help understanding how it works.

Here are the top 5 things you should know about the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings:

  1. Schools are organized by four categories.

The U.S. News Best Colleges rankings are broken down into four main groups:

  • National Universities, which offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral degrees, and emphasize faculty research.
  • Regional Universities, which offer a variety of undergraduate degrees and some master’s degrees but few or no doctoral programs.
  • National Liberal Arts Colleges, which focus almost exclusively on undergraduate degrees, and award at least 50% of their degrees in the arts and sciences.
  • Regional Colleges, which focus on undergraduate degrees but less than 50% of their degrees are in arts and sciences.

Our college search tip: If you want to start with “the bigger picture,” you can browse U.S. News Best Colleges rankings by these categories. Or, if you’re curious about specific schools, you can also search by school name.


  1. Rankings can help you both narrow and expand your search.

For some students and their families, knowing where to start with the school search is the hardest part. For others, it’s creating a list of finalists. The U.S. News rankings can help you discover new schools similar to one you’re already considering. The rankings can also help you compare and contrast schools to narrow your search.

Our college search tip: Make a list of what’s important to you academically for studying internationally. Then “rank” these factors in order of importance. For instance, if you want to be an engineer then a strong engineering program is high on your list. For each need you have, give the school a score of 1 through 10 for how well they meet that need.


  1. Rankings are just one thing you should consider.

Numbers are helpful when choosing where to study in the USA, but they’re not everything. U.S. News and other experts also recommend considering a variety of other factors that aren’t included when making the rankings. For instance, the school’s location, campus life, weather and access to a wide variety of American culture.

Our college search tip: Build on your list of academic priorities by also including other priorities. Especially if you’re interested in cultural as well as academic enrichment, you don’t want to choose your school just based on academic rankings.


  1. Schools are ranked based on 16 indicators of academic quality.

These “ranking model indicators” are chosen to give you an idea of a school’s academics, its faculty and its financial resources. Other indicators measure how well a particular school educates its students.

Our college search tip: When researching schools, make sure you consider average class size. The higher the average, the less likely you are to get much one-on-one time with your professors.


  1. Not all indicators are considered equally important.

A handful of indicators count for nearly two-thirds of a school’s ranking. These groups with the most weight, or impact on the school’s rank, are:

  • Undergraduate academic reputation, based on survey responses from high-ranking academics (such as presidents or deans of admissions) and counselors at thousands of U.S. high schools. These responses help put a number to questions like, “How dedicated is the school’s faculty?”.
  • Retention, based on the percentage of students who graduate and the percentage of students who return for sophomore year. These percentages help show if a school is offering the classes and services that students need to succeed.
  • Faculty resources, based on average class size, faculty salary, the percentage of professors who hold the highest degree in their field, student-faculty ratio and the proportion of full-time to part-time faculty. These measures help assess how committed a school is to teaching.

Our college search tip: If you know any current or former students at a school you’re considering, ask if they can tell you more about their experience there. They might even be able to put you in touch with some professors.

For a more detailed explanation of the U.S. News Best Colleges ranking system, read How U.S. News Calculated the 2015 Best Colleges Rankings.


Besides ranks, do you know what to look at when choosing universities? Did you see how universities help students achieve their career goals? Check out our tips.




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