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March 7

Behind the Numbers: U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings

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by | Mar 7, 2024 | Branding, Featured, Strategies

There’s been a lot of talk in the last two years or so about how the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings are made. 

What are the rankings? Are they fair? Do they misrepresent things? 

Because of all the doubts rising about the reliability of their ranking process, it seems that the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings overhauled their methodology to improve the rankings and promote trust. 

Transparency and trust are good. But this new methodology has shifted things around. 

Some institutions are happy because they’re scoring better than they ever have. 

Other institutions are very concerned about the shift because they’ve dropped in the rankings. 

While there have been a lot of changes in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings, one thing has remained the same: These rankings still have a big influence on the educational decisions of prospective students and their families. 

Bottom line? It’s important to understand the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings system as well as some others that are starting to gain traction in the public eye as well.

Adam Stoltz helps us understand the complexity of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings. To get a better idea of how the sausage is made, we spoke with Adam Stoltz, Director of Enrollment Marketing at the University of Idaho on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. 

Adam wrote his dissertation on the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings in which he explores its history and its relevance.

In this post, I’d like to break down some of the mechanics and mysteries of college rankings with Adam’s help.

What is the history of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings?

The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings first came out during the good ol’ days of Back to the Future and the Sony Walkman

Back in 1983, the inaugural U.S. News & World Report rankings first came out. The initial rankings were relatively simple, and they focused primarily on the national universities. 

In that early focus of data in the 1980’s, it really relied on data such as faculty-to-student ratios, standardized test scores of admitted students, and financial resources per student to assess essentially the quality of the institution. 

Back then, the methodology was relatively straightforward, especially compared with today’s rankings.

As the years went by, the rankings became more complicated and data driven.

Throughout the 1990’s, U.S. News rankings became more complex. They incorporated additional factors such as graduation rates, retention rates, the peer assessment survey, and alumni giving rates. 

That methodology evolved to offer a more comprehensive view of the institution’s quality.

It was during the 90’s that the U.S. News rankings began to wield substantial influence over the higher education world. 

In the early 2000’s, everything went online, and the accessibility for online really took the U.S. News rankings to another level.

They were available to a wider audience, which made it more of a significant presence within people’s lives because they could research on the Internet about a college and then kind of go back and forth [comparing different college’s] rankings. 

During that time frame, another really big thing that happened was specialized rankings. 

U.S. News not only ranked the national and regional universities, they started introducing specialized rankings in things such as business and law and engineering and healthcare. 

That gave additional insights for even more people to take a look at. 

Of course, anyone alive during these years knows that the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings became the definitive standard for many families on how colleges stack up. 

Are the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings still relevant?

Absolutely! The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings significantly influence the landscape of higher education.

In fact, the rankings on this list will affect not just a college’s reputation but also its ability to attract students and secure funding. 

According to Adam, the rankings have evolved from a mere popularity contest among academics to a comprehensive data-driven evaluation, impacting how institutions strategize their marketing and development efforts. 

There is a recent insidehighered.com article about, “Are students really paying attention to rankings?” 

[The answer is that] 22% of students sought rankings on U.S. News—22%! 

And from that, 25% of [those participating in the] survey said they paid attention to only one specific [rankings source]. So [that means that] 25% were focused on U.S. News alone. 

As a higher ed marketer, this information tells me that rankings are still a big enough influencer. 

When you talk about influencers, most surveys will tell you that the website is the number one influence, especially with Gen Z. Next on the list of influences you’ll certainly have mom and dad. 

But the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings play a role in how each one of these influencers are making their recommendations.

It’s like the influencer behind the influencers. 

How can you improve your U.S. News Rankings?

While we did talk to Adam at length about whether or not a college or university should opt out of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings, I’ll let you listen to that intriguing conversation in the podcast episode.

What I want to focus on here is how higher ed marketers can improve their U.S. News rankings if they want to leverage the influence of this widely popular ranking system. 

So, here are some recommendations to improve your U.S. News ranking.

1. Understand the methodology and leverage it.

Break down the current ranking criteria, focusing on aspects that you can influence directly or indirectly. 

Here are some examples of criteria that, with some effort, your school can improve in order to change your U.S. News ranking.

  • Graduation rates
  • Faculty resources
  • Student satisfaction
  • Alumni giving

2. Control your brand narrative with strategic content marketing.

By creating compelling stories about your institution’s successes, particularly in areas valued by the rankings, you can influence perceptions and indirectly impact rankings.

Make sure that all the success stories you have are out there and available to the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings through a well-planned and well-executed content marketing strategy.

3. Continually improve the student experience.

While this goes well beyond the scope of higher ed marketing, we do have a part to play in the overall experience of each student at our institutions. 

By improving the student experience, from academic support to campus life, colleges and universities can positively affect retention rates and alumni success, both of which are crucial for rankings.

4. Step up alumni engagement.

Although alumni giving rates have been de-emphasized in the rankings, maintaining strong alumni relations can lead to other benefits that indirectly boost rankings, such as career support for students and graduate success rates.

5. Work on increasing data accuracy and transparency.

Because the U.S. News rankings rely heavily on data, it’s crucial to continually feed them with accurate, up-to-date information on your institution. 

Be careful not to manipulate the data or inaccurately represent your school in your reports to ranking bodies. 

Otherwise, when the truth comes to light, it can have an immensely negative impact on your education brand.

Go Beyond the Rankings

To sum it all up, the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings are still a major influence in the educational decisions of your prospective students. 

The bad news is that you might not have a lot of influence over your school’s rankings, because it compares you to other schools with much different circumstances and resources. 

Moreover, a lot of the criteria that determine your ranking aren’t even under your control!

However, you do have control over your brand narrative, especially through good storytelling

And the good news is that the college decision is less of a question of ranking and more of a question of being a good mission-fit for the student. 

I really appreciated how Adam emphasized the need for higher ed marketers to focus more on finding mission-fit students rather than on improving their ranking.

His school ranks well for affordability, but even that is placed second to being a good fit with the student.

It comes a lot back into the brand of the institution and making sure people know, like for us at the University of Idaho, that [you’re the] best value. 

We want people to know that the [University of Idaho is] an affordable place to be, but end of the day, we want you to come and see the place! 

We want you to come check out the campus. And if it’s not the right fit, then it’s not a right fit.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

If you want to dive further into the recent changes of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings, you need to hear the entire conversation!

Listen to our interview with Adam Stoltz to get even more insights into:

  • The history of the U.S. World News Rankings (4:49)
  • How the rankings stay relevant (10:49)
  • Ranking methodology changes (19:26)
  • Other college ranking entities (34:50)


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