This week, U.S. News & World Report published the 36th annual “Best Colleges” list, updating its rankings methodology to incorporate new graduate indebtedness measures and slightly reduce the weight given to SAT/ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving rates.
The list, which is based on data from 2019 and earlier, evaluates 1,452 U.S. bachelor’s degree-granting institutions across 17 metrics. Even with the methodology adjustments, there were “no significant changes in those colleges ranked at the top,” Inside Higher Ed notes.
New indebtedness indicators
For this year’s list, U.S. News decreased the weighting of its student excellence and alumni giving categories by three percentage points and two percentage points, respectively. The tweaks created space to add two new indicators of graduate debt to the “student outcomes” category, which also includes data on graduation rates and social mobility.
Specifically, U.S. News is measuring the average amount of accumulated federal loan debt among each institution’s 2019 graduates from bachelor’s degree programs, as well as the proportion of each institution’s 2019 graduates who took out federal loans. The calculations exclude transfer students, money borrowed at other institutions, and parent loans.
“Affordability of college and the value of that degree after graduation, in terms of being able to earn enough money to be able to make the loan payments, are prime concerns of prospective students and their families,” U.S. News writes, adding that it introduced the new indicators as “a step to holding institutions accountable for the cost of college and the sources of funding available from that school to help students pay for their education.”
Ranking test-blind, test-optional colleges
While the data underpinning this year’s Best Colleges list does not reflect the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on colleges and universities, U.S. News says its re-introduction of test-blind schools into the rankings recognizes “the huge disruption in higher education” and its reliance on standardized testing. Previously, test-blind institutions were excluded and listed as “unranked”; test-optional and test-flexible institutions, however, have always been ranked.
The change, Education Dive reports, resulted in the addition of more than 60 colleges to this year’s rankings. Looking ahead, next year’s list will be the first where more than half of four-year colleges and universities have waived their standardized testing requirements.