Your Guide to Understanding College Rankings
- Many college rankings lists lack consistency and transparency in how they are curated, making it difficult for prospective students to determine whether rankings are objective and accurate.
- It's only through understanding the how and why behind a list that rankings become a useful college research tool.
- When reviewing a ranking, be aware of where the data comes from, how recently it was collected, and if there is a clear methodology for the list.
- Reputable resources to use in your own rankings research include the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), College Scorecard, and Student Achievement Measure (SAM).
In our 2020 Online Education Trends Report, prospective students like you listed college rankings as among their top three preferred methods for researching online programs (along with contacting schools directly and reading online reviews from students).
Our editorial team maintains over 500 pages of rankings, and we estimate an annual investment of nearly 4,000 hours of work reviewing and analyzing school data, assessing our methodology, and planning for and developing our school lists. We believe this is time well spent.
The Benefits and Challenges of College Rankings
Many of you are juggling the demands of work and raising a family in addition to pursuing a degree. 51% of undergraduate and 70% of graduate students are employed full time while completing their degrees, according to Learning House's 2019 Online College Students report. You need quick, reliable information about the subjects and potential programs that interest you, and rankings fill this need well.
But demand aside, there is an ongoing national debate around the usefulness and accuracy of college rankings. In 2018, this conversation caught the attention of the government when U.S. senators urged U.S. News & World Report to adjust their methodology for added inclusiveness of social mobility and economic diversity factors.
Part of the problem with college rankings is the vast number and variety of lists available today online and in print. Over a dozen major websites alone produce college rankings each year and their rankings can range in focus from subject/major, study location, and learning format (campus vs. online).
BestColleges offers all three. There is little consistency among publishers in the approach, the data used to compare schools, or the calculations driving a list. In some cases, this information isn't clearly cited or available. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for prospective students to determine whether rankings are objective and accurate.
At BestColleges, we believe that a college education is one of the most important investments a person will make, and we hope this guide provides concrete next steps to help you find the school that's best for you.
Take a Look Under the Hood
We think you may benefit from a walkthrough of the approaches commonly used by the major publishers of college rankings, including our own. For as much time as our team spends developing and improving our own rankings, we spend several of those hours just understanding and refining the sources available to us and the best way to objectively assess the quality of schools invested in online learning.
Our intention is to combat the confusion around rankings and give you some practical tips to take with you as you research schools. We hope this "look under the hood" helps you better use rankings as you begin your student journey. We've pulled together tips, best practices, and the things we've learned along the way to help you get started. We've also included many of the same resources we use so that you can not only make better use of our content, but also create your own discerning lists of "Best Colleges" based on your needs and preferences.
Using Rankings in Your College Search
So you've decided to go back to school. Congratulations! Maybe you want to earn an RN-to-BSN degree to be more competitive at work, or use your employer's tuition reimbursement to finally get that MBA.
No matter what degree you want to earn, you may not know how to select the right program. Below, you can read our tips for understanding college rankings, which will help you make an informed and personalized academic decision.
Understand the Methodology
A ranking's methodology expresses certain value statements. It sorts, rates, and ranks institutions and programs based on a set of criteria defined and grouped by the publisher. At BestColleges, we built our methodology around a philosophy that rewards overall student success in online learning.
This philosophy acts as our guiding principle in developing our methodology, and we've chosen to illustrate this in three categories: Academics and Learner Support (50%), Affordability (25%), and Online Programming (25%). The factors included are those that we think best reflect this philosophy. For example, our "Best Online Colleges and Universities" ranking uses the following criteria to rank schools offering 10 or more online programs:
Our academics criteria evaluates student success and learner support. To do this, we compare how well schools are admitting, retaining, and graduating students.
- Admissions rate
- Enrollment rate
- Retention rate
- Graduation rate
Affordability doesn't just mean total cost. We look at the sticker price and the amount of debt students typically graduate with.
- Average net price
- Percentage of students taking federal loans
- Loan default rate
To assess the top schools that offer online programs, we focus on faculty and student support in online learning, as well as the institution's long term commitment to online program development. We reach out to schools directly to ask them how they create, budget for, and train those teaching online classes.
- Total number of online programs offered
- Percentage of enrolled students taking online courses
- Percentage of instructors teaching online courses who have earned a terminal degree in their field and who are required to complete training in distance learning
- The maturity of their online programs (number of years online programs have been offered)
It's important to get acquainted with the philosophy and factors used for any ranking you're looking at. We use admissions, enrollment, retention, and graduation rates as the four factors that make up Academics, but are these the very best data points to use in this category? Well, we think so, but ultimately that decision is subjective and so focusing on the context may be the better approach.
Another site could consider other meaningful factors with substantially different results. In fact, Niche.com weights academics as 40% of their overall "Best Online Colleges" ranking and "incorporates factors such as acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school." This very different mix of factors naturally produces different results, but understanding the components of the methodology as well as the guiding principles the publisher uses is ultimately what matters when it comes to making the list relevant and meaningful for you.
Student success rankings often focus on how well colleges facilitate the student journey from admissions through graduation and beyond.
Common factors used: Graduation rate, faculty quality, student borrowing, student-to-faculty ratio
Upward mobility actively assesses how the least financially stable students fare academically and if a school truly improves a student's socioeconomic position.
Common factors used: Graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients, alumni salaries and gains for 5-10 years post-graduation, alumni giving
Outcomes-based rankings measure how well colleges prepare students for the workforce and typically focus on some combination of graduation/completion metrics and post-graduation earnings.
Common factors used: Student borrowing, median salary 5-10 years post-graduation, alumni earnings
A cost-centric ranking will generally narrow in on tuition, net price, and student borrowing to deliver the most affordable schools by geography, degree-level, and subject.
Common factors used: Average net price, instate tuition, student borrowing
An Interview with an Educational Psychologist
Dr. Elisa Robyn has a bachelor's and master's degree in geology, a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and a second master's degree in Jewish studies. She has over 20 years of experience as a professor and academic dean in various institutions. She has expertise in advising students on undergraduate and graduate academic and career pathways. Dr. Robyn also has an active blog, is the author of two books and several academic article. She can be connected through her website: elisarobyn.com
The data can be useful but only if a student understands how it is obtained. Completion rates are based on the "average" student who starts either as a freshman (undergraduate) or at the beginning of a graduate program. The rankings that show average GPA of students admitted are gathered in a similar manner. The amount of money an institution has raised from alumni is interesting but does not mean anything about an online student experience. A large endowment is good since it means the institution is fiscally stable, but again does not address the student experience. So students need to first understand what they need and then look at that data.
For example, often libraries are ranked based size of collection. However an online student needs to know about the online access, online journals and access to a research librarian 24/7.
Some of the rankings are very subjective. For example, university presidents are asked to rank institutions. Clearly they will put theirs at the top. Institutions are also ranked based on types of programs. So universities that offer doctorates are ranked in a different category. This is actually good, however institutions play with this. They might refrain from adding a Ph.D. and create an Ed.D. so that they stay in the same category.
Data is obviously always collected from the past. This means that all the data reflects what happened two years ago, and may not be relevant today.
The biggest issue is that many of these ratings address traditional students and are not useful for the returning adult.
Understand the Data
Along with understanding how a publisher is calculating and weighting school information (i.e., what data points they're using and how data is grouped and calculated), it's equally important to understand what data sources they are using to make calculations.
Federal data sources are those that are regulated and maintained by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and specifically the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) collects and analyzes data for K-12 and higher education in the U.S. through annual school surveys. Collected data is fully public domain and is accessible through both the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data Center (IPEDS). IPEDS allows you to pull data in bulk through a self-service portal with filters like state, school type, and any number of data points of your choosing. Typically, these reports are methodically reviewed for quality and thus the most recent publication tends to run 2-3 years behind the current academic year.
The ED also oversees Federal Student Aid, which tracks loan default rates and provides information and instruction regarding borrowing and financial loans.
To access more recent data sets, College Navigator provides access to the most current set of data reported by a school. Similarly, College Scorecard was launched in 2015 with the goal of giving consumers better access to data related to the value and return on investment of a degree. The "Compare" tool allows users to compare multiple schools to better estimate the value and cost of the degree.
The ED also oversees Federal Student Aid, which tracks loan default rates and provides information and instruction regarding borrowing and financial loans.
The Common Data Set Initiative (CDS) is a well-known source of data collected and used by a group of rankings publishers including U.S. News & World Report, Peterson's, and College Board. While the definitions of data mostly adhere to those of IPEDS, its focus is on accurate definition and standardization of college data points and not on analyzing postsecondary education trends as a whole. Many schools publish copies of these surveys to their school websites for reference by prospective students.
Still other sites aggregate data from both IPEDS and the CDS to publish their rankings lists. BestColleges falls into this category: Although we use NCES data when it is available, we will reference school websites as needed to fill in gaps and for the purpose of quality assurance. We also used school surveys in 2019 to round out our online data at the bachelor's level.
Sites like Niche.com and Unigo.com layer in student reviews, which could be considered an additional data 'source.' It's important to note that only data collected by the NCES/IPEDS is federally maintained and regulated.
When reviewing a ranking, make sure to look at not only where the data comes from but also how recently it was collected. School statistics change year over year and it's helpful to have an accurate, current understanding of what a school has to offer.
Avoiding Spammy Rankings Lists
Not sure if a ranking is trustworthy? Well-researched college rankings should contain (at the very least):
An Interview with a Director of Distance Education
A native of Virginia, Kathy Saville holds both a BS and M.Ed. from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is currently the director of instructional technology and distance education at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She has held this position for over six years.
Schools are looking for the "best and the brightest" but the student needs to look for the best fit for themselves. Which institution do you find exciting and worth your time, dedication, and financial investment? Which schools will offer financial aid? How long has the program at that institution been accredited? How many faculty in the program and how long have each professor been there?
Number 1: Is there a published telephone number for the online school and if you call the number, does someone answer or do you get an automated directory? If you have to leave a message, how long does it take to get a call back? Understanding admissions offices are not open 24/7, if you do not get a reply by the next business day, be concerned!
Number 2: Search the schools' websites for comments from current students and alumni. Email them for their insight.
Number 3: Are there any requirements to come to campus? Some online programs are really hybrids and require you come to campus periodically. If that is the case, can you afford to do that? Can you afford the airfare, hotel, etc.?
Use the Data
Additionally, it's important to understand what the data is telling you and who it represents. For example, is the tuition rate used in a ranking instate tuition or average net price? Is the data looking only at full-time incoming freshman or does it also include graduate students? Below we've included the most frequently discussed data points used to assess academic institutions to help alleviate some of this confusion.
While not an explicit ranking factor, a school's accreditation status may be the single most important factor to consider when vetting school quality. Enrolling with a school or program that isn't approved by a federally recognized accreditor could impact your ability to secure federal financial aid or transfer credits, not to mention you may be unintentionally enrolling in a diploma mill.
Many professional and advanced degree programs are also regulated through accrediting bodies, and it's important to note that any program you have in mind has taken steps to obtain these accreditations.
Use the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) directories or the ED's database to confirm that any schools you're interested in have active institutional and program accreditations that are approved by a federally recognized accrediting agency.
Institutional graduation rate tracks the percentage of students who completed their programs within a specified timeframe. Typically, graduation rate tracks full-time, first-time students completing their degrees either six years after start (150% time) or eight years (200%). Similarly, two-year colleges track completion 2-3 years after programs start. The national average for those graduating at 150% time at four-year schools is around 60%; at two-year schools, it's at about 30%.
NCES and the CDS now also track completion for part-time students, non-first-time students, and break out the data by Pell vs. non Pell Grant recipients. This can provide a fuller picture of a school's success rate among nontraditional students as well as serve as an indicator of student support among an economically diverse student population.
Retention rate typically tells us how many freshmen are returning to their school for sophomore year. This can be a powerful metric to gauge student success. It can also indicate if a school sees more than its share of students dropping out or transferring to another university. In 2015, retention rates at four-year universities averaged 81%.
Average net price is a useful and important data point to consider because it gives a more accurate look at what a student will actually pay. Net price estimates total annual cost for first-time, full-time undergraduate students, excluding only scholarships and grants. Schools are now required to offer a net price calculator on their websites, but read the fine print! It's important to know how recent the data is.
The ED tracks student loan default rates -- or the ratio of students who enter loan repayment at graduation and later default on those payments. Often, it's useful to compare a three-year trend at a school to see if they've improved or declined among student cohorts, as well as to compare against the national average. The national average for the 2015 cohort (the most recent year available) was 10.8%.
Acceptance and enrollment rates often go hand in hand to measure both selectivity and in a wider sense, quality. The rate of acceptance is the ratio of the number of students admitted to that school's fall term to the number of total applications received. Enrollment rate reflects how many of those accepted students went on to enroll. According to NCES, the average enrollment rate among 18-24 year olds in 2017 was up slightly to 40% (from 35% in 2000).
Class size and its counterpart student-to-faculty ratio both hint at the level of individual instruction and opportunity for participation in a course. Student-to-faculty ratio speaks to this by dividing the total number of enrolled students by the number of (typically) full-time instructors at the school. Class size is a more common measure in K-12 education and assesses the average size of classes offered (note that a "class" typically excludes smaller sections, labs, or other breakout sessions).
Make Rankings Work for You
Hopefully this information gives some insights into how rankings can be a helpful tool in finding a school. Often, rankings are organized by themes that provide additional opportunities to self-select by your interest area. For example, if you know you want to study locally, start with a ranking of your state's two- and four-year schools.
This is your process. You are more than a college t-shirt or a letter. You are more than a GPA and a standardized test score. You are not defined by where you 'got in' or where you 'didn't get into' college. You need to make the decision that is right for you based on what is best for you.
At BestColleges, we added a filter to our rankings landing page that allows users to drill down by degree level, format, and subject to more quickly find what you're looking for. You can also browse through subjects to narrow in on the specific program that is most appealing to you. At the least, jot down schools you see on our lists that you want to investigate further; we hope this approach helps you narrow your search.
5 Steps to Using College Rankings
An Interview with a Director of University Admissions
Jody Glassman is director of university admissions at Florida International University (FIU). Jody has worked the last 23 years in higher education, specifically university admissions and enrollment management. Prior to her work at FIU, she was an associate director for admission software services at the College Board.
My advice is very simple: This is your process. You are more than a college t-shirt or a letter. You are more than a GPA and a standardized test score. You are not defined by where you "got in" or where you "didn't get into" college. You need to make the decision that is right for you based on what is best for you.
I recommend two websites to start, CollegeBoard's Big Future and Raise.Me. Big Future allows a student and family to create accounts. The available resources start with middle school. They really help a student and family see that the process is not a sprint but a marathon. The student doesn't become "college bound" in their senior year, but rather they need to be preparing all through high school by challenging themselves academically, finding areas of interests, learning how to manage their time and practicing critical thinking. In addition there are pathways to not just four-years degrees, but careers and licenses or two-year programs. Raise.Me is a micro-scholarship program where a student earns money for college throughout high school. The activities associated with the dollar amounts are for things they already do, "earn an A in an academic class," "attend a university event," "participate in community service," and so on.
Common Ranking Concerns
Reviewing published rankings are just a starting point. Below are some common concerns prospective students experience as they're beginning their academic search. Use these recommendations to build your own rankings list based on the criteria that matter most to you. We've included several resources to help you get started.
If you're looking for additional academic support or want reassurance that a school is committed to supporting their students from enrollment through graduation, pay close attention to retention rate, class size, and/or student-to-faculty ratio. You'll also want to note the number of faculty with terminal degrees within your program's department and their research experience or breadth of subjects taught. Ask the school what training they were required to take before teaching an online course (if applicable). Finally, make sure that the school offers students academic support (writing centers, for example) and that each student has access to career and academic counselors. Some schools offer these resources on campus only, so make sure you'd have direct access as an online student, too.
Questions for Schools
- How do online students communicate with school counselors and academic advising centers? What hours are these services available?
- How can online students reach instructors with questions? What hours are instructors typically available outside of class?
- What is the retention rate of my specific online program for the last 3-5 academic years?
Student support covers a variety of topics and needs, but if you seek additional support in a particular area, make sure to ask the school how they plan to accommodate you. If you are a veteran or the spouse of a veteran, for example, ensure that a prospective school participates in the Yellow Ribbon program and has a dedicated contact for students. Similarly, if you are a student with a learning or physical disability, schools should be able to accommodate your needs through accessibility and assistive technology. Be sure to ask how these services differ for online students. Finally, visit our suite of Special Populations guides for more ideas of what to consider when looking for a college.
Questions for Schools
- How do online students communicate with school and office advisors? What hours are these services available?
- What resources are available to me as an online student? How do these options differ from the campus student's experience?
We all want to feel confident in the return on investment on a degree. Zeroing in on a school's graduation rates, loan default rates, and post-graduation salaries is a good start. College Scorecard contains a wealth of information regarding student outcomes and post-graduation salaries and employment. Make sure to confirm that any graduation rate statistic includes data about nontraditional students if you want a fuller picture of that school's track record (SAM and NCES's Outcome Measures are excellent places to start).
Questions for Schools
- What are the graduation rates for my program for the last three academic years and do these numbers include rates for nontraditional students (part-time, non first-time)?
- Do you publish any statistics on post-graduation employment rates or salaries?
- Where can I talk to program alumni or hear their about their experiences?
- How do you help graduates within the program find jobs or internships and what are your success rates?
It's true that some schools carry their own wow factor on a resume. If you're concerned with weighing the merits of these schools, you'll want to look closely at the acceptance vs. enrollment rates to get a feel for how competitive a school is. Compare that school's rates to your own academic accomplishments and test scores to better understand what a school will expect from you. Similarly, looking at incoming test scores of freshmen and (when available) for specialized graduate programs is a great way to assess the rigor and competitiveness of a school.
Questions for Schools
- What were the admissions rate and average test scores for my program last year (example: GMAT, GRE, or SAT)?
- Are the admissions and enrollment rates comparable for your online programs?
If you've earned credit at a two-year school or at another four-year school and you want to transfer those credits, start by making sure the credits were earned at an accredited school actively maintained by a regional or national accrediting body. Next, you'll want to confirm that there are no additional restrictions on credit transfers by the school. For example, some schools will only accept credits earned at regionally accredited schools and many have additional restrictions or limitations to the type and number of credits that are accepted. Check with the school to ensure that there are no additional restrictions placed on students enrolling in online programs, as well.
Questions for Schools
- Will you accept credit transfers from my current (or previous) school?
- Are there any restrictions on the number or types of credits I can transfer?
The price associated with earning a degree can vary wildly by school, but can also vary at the program and degree level and can depend on the format of learning you choose. Start by comparing tuition prices for in-state and out-of-state students, and note that if you're an international student, you will often be subject to higher tuition rates. Net price calculators are helpful in estimating your expenses; average net price will include living expenses and books (it excludes scholarships and grants).
If you're pursuing an advanced or online degree, check the school's website for the program's "per credit cost" and the number of credits required, as this is a quick and simple way to calculate what you'll actually spend on tuition. NCES also allows you to review stats about a school's borrowing (how many students are borrowing and how much they borrowed for the last few academic years), which is a helpful way to gauge what current students are spending. Finally, don't forget to factor in time to search for scholarships and grants to offset costs and make your degree more financially palatable.
Questions for Schools
- Are there any other fees outside of tuition and fees listed and are there additional fees for online programs (application fees, annual fees, etc.)?
- What is the per-credit cost for my program (include degree level and learning format) and how many credits are required for completion?
If you're looking for an on-campus or hybrid program and want to vet amenities, review campus security and local crime statistics, as well as student reviews of the dorm experience, dining halls, libraries, and campus parking costs and availability. Additionally, you'll want to get a sense of the number of clubs, academic organizations, and greek life options. Student review sites like Cappex can be helpful in comparing notes with actual students. We've done some research in this space too that may be of help to you. See our Best Campus Security and Best Dining Halls school lists and resources.
Questions for Schools
- What is your campus doing to cultivate a safe campus?
- How do you educate your students about safety?
- What is your school best known for outside of academics?
- What percentage of students live on campus? Join a fraternity or sorority?
Looking to learn exclusively online? Many schools have taken pains to ensure students are able to cultivate an online community that mirrors that of a campus experience. Pay close attention to how many in-person meetings are required to graduate, and ask what student services are available to online students (e.g., career advising, veterans services, and library services]). You'll also want to ask how students are encouraged to communicate with one other and how frequently.
Questions for Schools
- Are there online chat groups, chat rooms, or other communication platforms offered with each course that encourage student collaboration?
- How do online students primarily communicate with their peers and their instructor(s)?
- What types of online technical support are available to online students?
- What are the in-person requirements for my online program?
College rankings are ubiquitous and vary in both quality and intent, and we believe it's only through understanding the how and why behind a list that it becomes a useful research tool. Wherever you are in your student journey, we hope that this guide provides the guidance you're looking for to better arm you in your search. Above all, we hope it helps you find the program and school that's best for you.
College Ranking Resources
National Center for Education Statistics
NCES is a branch of the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences and is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. Users can pull and compare data points across several institutions using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Center (IPEDS) (typically 2-3 academic years behind), or search for a specific institution to see the most recently collected statistics. Reference their complete Glossary for added clarity.
The College Scorecard is maintained by the U.S. Department of Education and allows prospective students to compare the cost and value of colleges and universities. Like IPEDS, this data set typically runs 2 or more years behind the current academic year. The Compare feature allows consumers to directly compare multiple institutions by specific data points.
Student Achievement Measure
SAM tracks student completions for bachelor's and associate/certificate students within a six-year period, and breaks out institutional data by both graduation and transfer rates, offering a fuller picture of student outcomes. To date, they have data on over 600 schools.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
The BLS is a federal program operating under the U.S. Department of Labor whose mandate is to collect and analyze data related to the economy -- specifically labor market activity, working conditions, and price changes in the public and private sector. Included in this dataset are Employment Predictions including median salary and project employment growth (or decline) broken out by both location and industry.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation
CHEA is a collection of 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting agencies that oversee over 3,000 accredited schools. The agency is governed by a board of college presidents and other leaders in higher education.
Most school websites today have a page or section of their site dedicated to online learning that lists their currently available online programs. This can be a helpful next step in finding the best school contact to reach out to for additional information.
There are many commercial websites that generate rankings and/or aggregate student reviews and school data. Here are a few to get you started: