Today marks the release of the 36th edition of the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings. Over the decades, U.S. News has published data on colleges and universities to help prospective students and their families make the important – and costly – decision about where to go to college.
Despite changes to the metrics – such as a greater focus on outcome measures like graduation rates, retention rates and social mobility indicators – the mission behind Best Colleges has remained the same. Whether prospective students are looking for the Best Value Schools and A-plus Schools for B Students or want information on campus life and tuition, U.S. News publishes data to help students pick the best school for them.
New this year, U.S. News made some important changes to the overall ranking methodology, including the introduction of two outcome measures pertaining to graduate indebtedness, for a total of 17 factors. To make room, U.S. News gave less weight in the rankings to SAT/ACT scores, high school class standing and alumni giving rates.
Below are the most significant methodology changes made for the 2021 edition of the Best Colleges rankings. For a more thorough explanation, see the methodology article, and for an even deeper dive into how U.S. News computed the ranking indicators, see the article on criteria and weights.
Two new ranking indicators that measure graduate indebtedness were added to the rankings this year:
- Graduate indebtedness total. This is the average amount of accumulated federal loan debt among the 2019 bachelor’s degree graduating class that took out federal loans (weighted 3%). For nonresponders to the U.S. News financial aid survey, the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard’s most recent cohort of institutional median graduate indebtedness was adjusted and used in its place.
- Graduate indebtedness proportion. This is the percentage of graduates from the 2019 bachelor’s degree graduating class who borrowed federal loans (2%). For nonresponders to the U.S. News financial aid survey, the College Scorecard’s most recent institutional cohort of proportion of undergraduates borrowing was adjusted and used in its place.
U.S. News also calculated a new graduate indebtedness rank, which is the combination of the two indebtedness indicators for ranked schools. It provides a benchmark for how schools compare in terms of total graduate indebtedness among those with debt and the proportion of graduates with debt. For schools ranked highest, it means their recent bachelor’s degree graduates had relatively little debt and a relatively small proportion of students graduating with debt compared with other schools. This graduate indebtedness rank is available on each school’s Rankings section on usnews.com.
Outcomes weight increased: As a result of adding graduate indebtedness, the rankings factors that measure outcomes now account for 40% of the ranking, up from 35% last year. The outcomes rank displayed on each school’s Rankings section on usnews.com is composed of these ranking factors: graduation and retention rates; graduation rate performance; social mobility; and graduate indebtedness.
Graduation rate performance based on two-year average: Graduation rate performance is now based on the average of two six-year graduating class cohorts. For the 2021 edition, it’s based on the average of the 2012 and 2013 cohorts. Previously it was based on the most recent cohort.
Test-blind schools now ranked: U.S. News ranked schools that did not use the SAT or ACT at all in their fall 2019 admissions decisions. Since the 2008 edition of Best Colleges, test-blind schools like these had been automatically excluded from the overall rankings and categorized as unranked. During that time, colleges had to either require these exams or be test-optional or text-flexible to be rank-eligible. With that standard now lifted, more than 90 test-blind schools were introduced to the rankings.
This change resulted in more schools becoming rank-eligible. To ensure valid comparisons, U.S. News also introduced a requirement in this year’s rankings that any college must have reported a six-year graduation rate of full-time, first-year bachelor’s degree seeking students in order to be ranked. As a result, there are more than 60 schools ranked in the 2021 edition compared with the previous edition.
Changes to faculty salary indicator: Faculty salary is weighted at 7% and reflects the average full-time faculty salaries for assistant, associate and full-time professors during the 2019-2020 academic year, based on definitions from the American Association of University Professors. This is a change from previous rankings, which used a two-year average of both salaries and nonsalary compensation in the rankings.
Less weight given to student excellence and alumni giving: Student excellence was reduced to 7% in the rankings from 10% previously. To make this change, U.S. News reduced the weight of the two factors that are part of it. For the 2021 edition, U.S. News reduced the weight of SAT/ACT standardized tests to 5% (7.75% previously) and reduced the weight of high school class standing to 2% (2.25% previously) toward schools’ overall scores. The weight of alumni giving was reduced to 3% (5% previously) toward each school’s overall rank.
New weights and ranking indicators applied to Historically Black Colleges and Universities ranking: For the 2021 HBCU ranking, U.S. News also applied the changes made to the overall rankings, including adding the two graduate indebtedness indicators and reducing weight on student excellence and alumni giving. Weight was also increased on social mobility and reduced from HBCU peer assessment.
New undergraduate computer science rankings: Computer science is one of the most rapidly growing and important majors in higher education today. For the first time, U.S. News ranked 481 undergraduate computer science schools and departments. The ranking is based solely on the judgments of academic quality rated by deans and senior faculty at peer computer science schools and departments. In addition, U.S. News has also published computer science specialty rankings in these nine key areas: artificial intelligence, biocomputing/bioinformatics/biotechnology, computer systems, cybersecurity, data analytics/science, mobile/web applications, programming languages, software engineering, and theory.
New undergraduate business specialty ranking: For the first time, U.S. News has ranked business analytics, a rapidly growing offering at business schools.
New ranking indicator in Best Value Schools methodology: By design, the Best Value Schools rankings place significant emphasis on affordability for students who may be eligible for need-based aid. The 2021 edition introduced a new ranking indicator, contributing 20% toward a college or university’s Best Value Schools rank, which incorporates the proportion of students who received need-based aid that received at least some in the form of grants and scholarships, as opposed to loans.