Investigating College Ranking and Evaluation Systems

Tyson Schritter

This is the first article in a series comparing Colleges of Distinction’s methods of evaluation to the statistical school rankings system used by other publications.

In this article, we’ll define the qualitative criteria Colleges of Distinction uses to evaluate schools, and the quantitative method used by U.S. News & World Report, one of the most popular college ranking systems.

Our next article will dive deep into the differences between the two ranking systems. After that, the series will focus on the ways students can use both ranked and qualitative guides—ours and others—to pick the right school for them.

Evaluation Systems: Statistics or Characteristics?

If you’ve ever thought about going to college—or have a kid who’s thinking about attending college—you’ve likely heard about college ranking systems. There are many, but none as popular as U.S. News & World Report.

Systems like U.S. News’ rely heavily on statistics to determine which school is better than the other. But Colleges of Distinction is different, because we focus on the school’s qualities instead. In other words, we go beyond the numbers to look at the people and ideas behind each institution.

We know that a great college is not defined by its numbers and ranking, but by the people and ideas found there. And while the big-name schools may score well based on statistics, that doesn’t always mean the students are getting the greatest, most enriching and rewarding college experience possible.

So instead of a ranking system, we’ve created a select list of quality schools that implement the best practices as determined by education experts. This way, our readers can be assured that the schools in our guides are the best places to learn, grow, and succeed.

That being said, both qualitative and quantitative approaches are useful in their own way. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each—and how you can leverage them for your own benefit—will help you make better a better decision. So with that in mind, let’s dive into our approach based on what we like to call the Four Distinctions.

The Four Distinctions: Colleges of Distinction’s Holistic Approach

Our goal when evaluating colleges is to find the best schools in the country for students to learn, grow, and succeed. We’re asking: where can students go to get an excellent 21st Century education? To do this, we drew upon leading research and determined what distinct qualities will indicate to us that a school meets our criteria. The result was Four Distinctions: engaged students, great teaching, vibrant communities, and successful outcomes.

With the Four Distinctions as our guide, we place the student experience front and center. Inclusion on our list is solely dependent upon quality education, not the institution’s size, prestige, endowment, or athletics department. As a result, our guide features smaller, teaching-centered colleges that help individual students feel like important members of the community, and make sure they succeed after graduation. Let’s explore each of the Distinctions now to illustrate how they help us make this determination:

Engaged Students

Colleges of Distinction values schools that encourage active learning. Engaged students aren’t just memorizing facts and sitting through lectures. They’re thinking critically, debating the issues, studying abroad, and gaining valuable experience through internships.

Programs we look for include: first-year experiencescommon intellectual experienceswriting intensive courses, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, diversity, and global learning. These kinds of programs provide students with a variety of ways to learn beyond the walls of the classroom, the limits of their major, and the borders of their country. They instill students with a love of learning that remains with them for the rest of their lives.

Great Teaching

Faculty interaction with students is a crucial aspect of great teaching. When teachers encourage students and give them feedback, their motivation and retention increases. When classes are smaller, students have better access to the talent and knowledge of their professor. There is no back corner of the classroom where they can hide, and they have greater opportunity to connect with faculty outside of class.

This is also why Colleges of Distinction seeks out schools who prioritize faculty interaction with students over their own research and publishing. It’s important that teachers know their students by name instead of just teaching to a room of nameless faces.

Vibrant Communities

College is the time in your life to explore new opportunities, try new activities, and live new experiences. A college with a vibrant community affords all of these. Students who attend a college with a vibrant community don’t just go to class; they participate in extracurricular groups that encourage new interests, study in learning communities, and give back to the larger community.

Successful Outcomes

“Success” can take on many different meanings, and when talking about a College of Distinction, we intend to use each and every interpretation of the word. The most obvious meaning is that students can find meaningful employment after graduation. But there’s so much more to gain from a college experience than just employment.

Colleges that make our list produce adaptable graduates capable of team collaboration, and eloquent self expression through the written or spoken word. In short, Colleges of Distinction alumni are prepared for anything.

U.S. News & World Report College Ranking Criteria

In contrast to Colleges of Distinction, U.S. News ranks colleges based on seven categories that can easily be displayed in numbers and statistics. These seven sections are: undergraduate academic reputation, graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduation rate performance. Each of the seven categories have subcategories, and each is weighted with a specific percentage to signal importance in the final score.

The quantifiable data displayed in the U.S. News college rankings creates an easily digestible way for people to assess college choices. It’s easy to understand the numbers and data, as well as to accept that schools with higher rankings are superior. The seven categories help to capture various aspects of academic quality and an overview of college quality.

Undergraduate Academic Reputation

This section of the U.S. News ranking is weighted at 22.5% and has two subcategories. For national universities, a peer assessment survey is weighted 66.7% and a high school counselor rating is weighted at 33.3%. The peer assessment is done by asking administrators from schools in a similar ranking group their opinion about the college. Administrators are asked to rate a school between 1 and 5, 5 being the best. If they are unfamiliar with the school, they mark “don’t know” which doesn’t count for or against the school. The administrators scores are averaged to come up with a final score.

For regional universities, the peer survey is the only section and is weighted at 100%.

Graduation and Retention Rate

U.S. News weighs this section at 22.5% with two subcategories: the average graduation rate is weighted 80% and the average first-year retention rate is weighted 20%.

Faculty Resources

Faculty compensation (35%), percent faculty with terminal degree (15%), percent faculty that is full time (5%), student to faculty ratio (5%), and class size (40%) are the five subcategories of faculty resources which is weighted at 20% out of the total.

Student Selectivity

This section is based off of the previous year’s statistics and comes in at 12.5% of the total. The four subcategories are: acceptance rate (10%), high school class standing in the top ten percent (25% for national universities, 0% for regional universities), high school class standing in the top twenty five percent (0% for national universities, 25% for regional universities), and critical reading and math portions of SAT and composite ACT scores (65%).

Financial Resources

Weighted 10% out of the total, this has only one subcategory: financial resources per student.

Alumni Giving

Alumni giving has one subcategory (average alumni giving rate) and is given 5% importance in the total.

Graduation Rate Performance

This category is weighted at 7.5% of the total.

Statistics such as graduation rate and retention rate can be illustrative of efforts put on by the college to fully support students academically and socially through to graduation. The overall score given by U.S. News and World Report is a helpful way for prospective students to look at how one school matches up to another school in quality.

We hope this gave you an overview of how different the evaluation systems are at Colleges of Distinction and U.S. News. In our next article, we’ll compare and contrast the sections of the two ranking systems more closely and get into the nitty gritty. Does this help you begin to make sense of the college rankings lists, and how they can help you? What else would you like to know? Let us know in the comments!