How We Rank America’s Best Colleges
The nuts and bolts that underpin our annual list of top schools.
Through Christian Kreznar
We first selected colleges and universities that train undergraduates, based on their Carnegie classification, a higher education framework that categorizes schools based on their degree offerings, research results. and their specialization. We have selected doctoral research universities, master’s universities and colleges, and bachelor’s colleges. We have also included colleges that offer specialized four-year programs in Engineering, Business, and Art.
From this pool, we drew schools that had sufficient data from the following sources: The College Scorecard and the Integrated Post Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), two federal databases that track student achievement and institutional characteristics. We also relied on PayScale, a salary reporting and comparison company; Third Way, a DC-based think tank that developed the Price-to-Earnings Premium; and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). We have eliminated schools with less than 300 students in total.
Salary of alumni (20%)
We used two data points from College Scorecard and two from PayScale. From the College Dashboard, we’ve included salary figures for 6 and 10 years after enrollment. From PayScale, we’ve included early and mid-career earnings, which span 1-4 years and 10 years after graduation, respectively. (Beyond 10 years, there are too many confounders to link income to higher education.)
Neither College Scorecard nor PayScale data sets are perfect: College Scorecard only tracks federal funding recipients using IRS data, while PayScale data is self-reported. We weighted the four salary variables equally at 5% to account for the shortcomings of each measure.
From the College Scorecard, we multiplied the average federal student loan debt per borrower by the percentage of students who had federal student loans. We also used College Scorecard data for five-year loan repayment rates. These two variables were weighted at 7.5%, for a total of 15%.
Return on investment (15%)
Third Way provided the performance bonus for each institution, which measures the time it takes for students to pay their college fees. It does this by dividing the total net price of earning a college degree by the increase in post-enrollment income that students earn relative to the typical salary of a high school graduate in their state, according to the census data. This achieves the real financial return on investment of a college education. We have weighted the general bonus at 10% and a separate bonus for low income graduates at 5%, for a total of 15%.
Graduation rate (15%)
Although a four-year university education remains the gold standard, it does not reflect the large number of students who need more time for personal and financial reasons. Rather than considering only full-time students for the first time, this year we also incorporated the completion results for part-time and transfer students. We used data from IPEDS on six-year completion rates, with 10% forecast for all students and 5% for students who received Pell scholarships. We also indexed Pell graduation rates with the proportion of Pell students at each institution, giving an advantage to schools that enroll and obtain both low and moderate income backgrounds.
Forbes List of American Leaders (15%)
To assess the leadership and entrepreneurship of their graduates, we compiled the number of listmakers each school produced on the Forbes 30 Under 30, Forbes 400, Richest Self-Made Women, and Most Powerful Women lists. We have also included people in the public service, including members of the presidential cabinet, the Supreme Court, Congress, and sitting governors. Finally, the list included winners of the MacArthur Fellowship, Nobel Prize, Breakthrough Prize, Lasker Prize, Fields Prize, Oscars, Tony’s, NAACP Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowship, Big Stars in Sports. , presidential medals and Pulitzer Prizes.
Retention rate (10%)
To account for student satisfaction, we used the IPEDS three-year full-time student average retention rate, which measures the percentage of students who choose to stay after their first year.
Academic success (10%)
We used two measures, also weighted at 5%. We have compiled the number of graduates from each college who have won Fulbright, Truman, Goldwater, Rhodes, Gates and Cambridge scholarships over the past four years. The second measure used data from the federal government’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) to compile the total number of undergraduates who earned doctorates in the past three years.