U.S. News & World Report released its 2021 Best Colleges rankings today, featuring rankings of more than 1,400 colleges and universities that grant baccalaureate degrees. It’s the 36th year for the rankings, a testament not only to its unusual longevity but also its outsized influence for students, families and the general public.
For the tenth straight year, Princeton tops the National University list, followed, also as in years past, by Harvard in second. Columbia was third, and MIT and Yale tied for fourth. Williams College heads up the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, and UCLA once again claimed first place among Top Public Universities.
Here are the five top-ranked schools in several of the major categories.
Best National Universities (389 schools)
- Princeton University
- Harvard University
- Columbia University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University (tie)
Of the top 20 national universities, 19 were private, not-for-profit institutions. UCLA was the only public school in the top 20. All the schools ranked in the top 20 National Universities in 2021 were in the top 20 in 2020, albeit in a slightly different order. This ranking inertia has come to be expected, the product of both institutional continuity and – despite small, annual revisions – a largely repetitive rankings methodology.
Best National Liberal Arts (223 schools)
- Williams College
- Amherst College
- Swarthmore College
- Pomona College and Wellesley College (tie)
Best National Public Universities (209 schools)
- University of California, Los Angeles
- University of California, Berkeley
- University of Michigan
- University of Virginia
- University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Remarkably, of the top 11 national public universities, six were the various campuses of the University of California.
Best Public Liberal Arts Colleges (23 schools)
- U.S. Naval Academy
- U.S. Military Academy
- U.S. Air Force Academy
- Virginia Military Institute
- St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Best Historically Black Colleges and Universities (79 schools)
- Spelman College
- Howard University
- Xavier University of Louisiana
- Tuskegee University
- Hampton University
Top Performers on Social Mobility
- University of California, Riverside
- University of California, Irvine
- Rutgers University, Newark
- University of California, Santa Cruz
- University of California, Merced
National Liberal Arts Colleges
- College of Idaho
- Lake Forest College (IL)
- Thomas Aquinas College (CA)
- Spelman College
- University of Puerto Rico, Cayey
U.S. News has revised its methodology over time, and it continues to adjust the weights assigned to its now 17 measures of “academic quality” grouped into six different categories. Here are two major changes from last year.
- It added two measures of student debt: 1) the average amount of accumulated federal loan debt among full-time undergraduate borrowers at graduation, and 2) the percentage of full-time undergraduates in a graduating class who borrowed federal loans.
- It increased the cumulative weight of its “outcome” measures from 35% to 40% – the two new indicators of debt were considered along with graduation and retention rates and social mobility. The weights for SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving have correspondingly been reduced from last year.
One other major change this year is that for the first time U.S. News ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT in their admissions decisions. Since the 2008 edition of Best Colleges, these test-blind schools had been automatically excluded from the overall rankings and categorized as “Unranked.” Colleges employing test-optional or text-flexible admissions policies have always been ranked, and they continue to be so in the latest rankings.
Why did U.S. News make this change? Here’s its answer: “Because prospective students and their families want to know the academic quality of all schools, including ones that do not make use of standardized test scores. Also, in recent years a large number of colleges have changed their application requirements regarding the SAT and ACT.”
The move was also an acknowledgement that the coronavirus pandemic had disrupted administration of the SAT and ACT to an extent that many colleges had at least temporarily stopped using them or moved to being test-optional. Consequently, the decision was made “to end the use of standardized tests in admissions decisions as a requirement for inclusion in the rankings.”
As a result, 205 schools – including 18 National Universities and seven National Liberal Arts Colleges – were added to the list of ranked schools, a 14% increase.
The 2021 ranking categories and their weights for the National Universities (some weights are slightly different for regional universities) are as follows:
Student indebtedness, graduation and retention rates, social mobility (the enrollment of Pell grant students and their graduation at a rate that’s close to the rate of non-Pell Students).
Faculty Resources (20%)
Class size, student:faculty ratio, average faculty salary, proportion of faculty who are full time, and who have earned the terminal degree in their discipline.
Expert Opinion (20%)
Reputational ratings by presidents, provosts, and admissions deans.
Financial resources (10%)
Spending per undergraduate student on academics, such as instruction, student services, and research.
Student Excellence (7%)
ACT/SAT scores, high school class rank.
Alumni giving (3%)
The percentage of bachelor’s degree graduates who donate to their institution in a given year.
Overall, this year’s rankings reflect a small, but welcome, shift toward educational outputs, as opposed to incoming student credentials or institutional inputs. Although it remains too easy for schools to game the system, and too much weight is still focused on the highly subjective reputational measure and the various proxies for institutional wealth (e.g., faculty salaries and per-student spending), the methodological changes that U.S. News made this year represent clear improvements. Regarding the reputational survey, it’s of note that of the 4,816 academics who were sent questionnaires in 2020, only 36.4% responded, a substantial decline from the 43% response rate in 2019. It’s an increasingly questionable measure, one that should be discontinued.
Of special interest is the extent to which the pandemic and its many disruptions to the traditions of a college education – including admissions, classroom instruction, mentoring, residence life and even graduation ceremonies – may be rendering ranking systems less meaningful. How much does high school class standing mean if schools continue to resort more often to pass/fail grades? What does average class size really matter if everyone is attending only remotely? Ditto for the student:faculty ratio. And how are student services being delivered, let alone measured, if only a fraction of students live on campus?
The 2021 U.S. News rankings were based on data from 2019. They reflect the pre-pandemic college scene. How much those rankings will need to be changed to reflect post-pandemic realities, some of which may linger for some time to come, remains to be seen. Count it as one more example of how much higher education has changed in the last year.