Students would probably offer a multitude of answers if asked to name the best college in America. But U.S. News & World Report has delivered the same verdict for a string of Septembers. Princeton, the magazine just declared, is the top national university for the sixth straight year, Williams College the top liberal arts college for the 14th consecutive year, and the University of California at Berkeley the top public university for the 19th year in a row.
The U.S. News rankings, released Tuesday, draw perennial fascination from consumers and close scrutiny from colleges jockeying to stand out in the market. Among this year’s novelties, the University of Chicago placed third on the national university list, tied with Yale, just behind Harvard and up from ninth as recently as six years ago. Wellesley, previously fourth among liberal arts colleges, moved up to third, switching places with Swarthmore. Amherst remained where it has been on that list for years: No. 2.
The stability of the rankings, the most prominent in the field, is no surprise, given how they are built. U.S. News surveys college officials and high school counselors to gauge opinions of schools, and it considers graduation rates, faculty resources, financial strength, graduate giving, test scores of incoming students and admission rates. Many of these data points vary only slightly from year to year.
U.S. News says its formula measures quality in ways that matter to students and parents, but critics say the rankings are a self-perpetuating exercise in rewarding wealth and prestige.
Other analysts have begun to judge schools based on what they call “return on investment,” looking at net price and economic outcomes for graduates. Last year, the federal government made public for the first time the average earnings of graduates 10 years after they started college. The data, on the website known as College Scorecard, encompassed only former students who had received federal financial aid and did not distinguish between those who majored in, say, engineering and those who majored in anthropology.
“It’s the best existing database on the financial outcomes of enrolling in a particular college,” said Kim Clark, a senior writer on higher education for Money. “A person’s ability to navigate the working world and earn a living, and not live in their parents’ basement, that to me is a sign of success in college. In the real world, you do have to earn a living.” Princeton, Michigan and Harvard topped this year’s Money list, in that order.
U.S. News does not include the federal earnings data in its formula.
“U.S. News believes that students and their parents should strongly consider academic quality when choosing a college, and prospective students should not base their college choice primarily on potential earnings,” Robert Morse, the magazine’s chief data strategist, wrote in an email. “There are well-documented flaws in the current College Scorecard that can make the data misleading. When and if the Department of Education publishes a new version, we will evaluate it.”
One of the biggest changes to this year’s U.S. News lists resulted from a new analysis this year of doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s programs called the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The magazine relies on this sorting, which occurs every five years, to determine whether a school is a national university, a liberal arts college or in some other category.
Villanova, for example, was reclassified this year from a “regional university” to a national one because it reached a threshold in the number of PhDs that it awards: 20 per year. The Catholic university in the Philadelphia suburbs, home to the reigning NCAA men’s basketball champs, debuted on the U.S. News national list at No. 50. It tied with Pepperdine, the University of Florida and Penn State.
Eight universities from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia placed among the top 100 nationally, public and private. Johns Hopkins ranked 10th, Georgetown 20th, the University of Virginia 24th, William & Mary 32nd, George Washington 56th and the University of Maryland 60th. American and Virginia Tech tied for 74th.
Here are the top 25 national universities on the 2016 list:
3. (tie) University of Chicago
3. (tie) Yale
5. (tie) Columbia
5. (tie) Stanford
7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
8. (tie) Duke
8. (tie) University of Pennsylvania
10. Johns Hopkins
12. (tie) California Institute of Technology
12. (tie) Northwestern
15. (tie) Cornell
15. (tie) Rice
15. (tie) University of Notre Dame
15. (tie) Vanderbilt
19. Washington U. in St. Louis
20. (tie) Emory
20. (tie) Georgetown
20. (tie) UC-Berkeley
23. University of Southern California
24. (tie) Carnegie Mellon
24. (tie) UCLA
24. (tie) University of Virginia
Here are the top 10 liberal arts colleges:
4. (tie) Middlebury
4. (tie) Swarthmore
7. (tie) Carleton
7. (tie) Pomona
9. (tie) Claremont McKenna
9. (tie) Davidson
Here are the top 10 public universities:
2. (tie) UCLA
2. (tie) University of Virginia
4. University of Michigan
5. University of North Carolina
6. College of William and Mary
7. Georgia Tech
8. UC-Santa Barbara
10. (tie) UC-Davis
10. (tie) UC-San Diego
10. (tie) University of Illinois
10. (tie) University of Wisconsin
More on U.S. News rankings: