Just how can rankings help you identify colleges and universities that are right for you? Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers. But for families, the U.S. News rankings provide an excellent starting point because they offer the opportunity to judge the relative quality of institutions based on widely accepted indicators of excellence. You can compare different schools’ numbers at a glance, and looking at unfamiliar schools that are ranked near schools you know can be a good way to broaden your search. Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information in this book with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college.

It’s very important, of course, to research the course and program offerings at any school you’re interested in. For the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News helps by spotlighting schools with outstanding examples of aca demic programs that have been shown to enhance learning. With the help of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which focuses on quality initiatives in higher education, we identified eight types of programs associated with student success, including first-year experiences, learning communities, writing in the disciplines, senior capstone, study abroad, internships or cooperative education, opportunities for undergraduate research, and service learning. We asked college presidents, chief academic officers, and admissions deans to nominate up to 10 institutions with excellent examples of each. The results are on the Academic Programs to Look For section of this website. The U.S. News rankings system rests on two pillars. It relies on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of aca demic quality, and it’s based on our nonpartisan view of what matters in education.

U.S. News has made numerous changes this year to improve our methodology and rankings. To sort colleges and universities into the appropriate categories, this 2008 edition of America’s Best Colleges uses the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s recently announced 2006 Basic version of its Carnegie Classifications. This was the first major category revision by Carnegie since 2000 (we implemented those changes in the 2002 rankings). The latest revision has resulted in many schools changing from one U.S. News ranking category to another. In addition, some schools, including the U.S. service academies, are ranked for the very first time. The Carnegie Classifications have been the basis of the Best Colleges ranking categories since the first rankings in 1983 and also are used in higher-edu cation research. For example, the U.S. Department of Edu cation and many associations use them to organize their data and to determine colleges’ eligibility for grant money. In short, the Carnegie categories are the accepted standard in higher education, and that is why we use them.

How will you be able to tell whether a school has changed ranking categories or is new to the rankings for 2008? We have clearly footnoted schools that have switched categories since last year’s America’s Best Colleges or that appear in our rankings for the first time.

The second major change this year is that we have created groups of unranked schools that we have listed alphabetically in separate tables at the bottom of the category in which they would have been ranked. This is not the first year U.S. News has decided not to rank some schools; we have been doing this to some degree since 1990. U.S. News believes that because these schools are unable to report key educational characteristics or because they have certain other characteristics, it would be unfair to try to compare them statistically with the other schools that are part of the rankings.

Ranked or unranked? A new group of schools was added to the list of unranked schools for America’s Best Colleges 2008: those institutions that have indicated that they don’t use the sat or act in admission decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants. In addition, some schools were not ranked because they didn’t receive enough responses on the peer assessment survey to allow us to use their peer score as part of the overall ranking. Other types of schools have been unranked in previous years and continue to be unranked this year. They include schools with total enrollment of fewer than 200 students; schools where a vast proportion of students are nontraditional; colleges that don’t accept first-year students, sometimes called upper-division schools; private universities that are for-profit; and a few specialized schools in arts, business, or engineering. (These schools are classified by Carnegie as “Special Focus Institutions.”)

We added the proportion of the student body receiving Pell grants into our predicted gradu ation rate formula. Pell grants are an important indicator of how many low-income students attend a school, and adding them resulted in a model that better captures the school’s student body and improves that indicator. More about Pell grants can be found in our Economic Diversity table.

Same schools, new name. Finally, we changed the name of the comprehensive colleges-bachelor’s ranking category to baccalaureate colleges since we believe the new label is a clearer way to identify these schools in terms of their broad educational mission.

How does the methodology work? First, schools are categorized by mission and, in some cases, by region. The national universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and Ph.D. programs, and emphasize faculty research. The liberal arts colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education. They award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the arts and sciences. The universities-master’s offer a broad scope of undergraduate degrees and some master’s degree programs but few, if any, doctoral programs. The baccalaureate colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. The baccalaureate colleges include institutions where at least 10 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor’s degrees. The universities-master’s and baccalaureate colleges categories are further subdivided by geog raphy-North, South, Midwest, and West.
Next, we gather data from each college for up to 15 indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is assigned a weight that reflects our judgment about how much a meas ure matters. Finally, the colleges in each category are ranked against their peers, based on their composite weighted score.

Sources, sources . Most of the data come from the colleges—and U.S. News takes pains to ensure their accuracy. This year, 92.4 percent of the schools we surveyed returned information. We obtained missing data from sources such as the American Association of University Professors, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Council for Aid to Education, and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Data that did not come from this year’s survey are footnoted. Estimates, which are never published by U.S. News, may be used when schools fail to report particular data points. Missing data are reported as N/A in the ranking tables.

The indicators we use to capture academic quality fall into seven categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and (for national universities and liberal arts colleges) “graduation rate perform ance,” the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion who actually do. The indicators include input measures that reflect a school’s student body, its fac ulty, and its financial resources, along with outcome measures that signal how well the institution does its job of educating students. Following are detailed descriptions of the indicators used to meas ure aca demic quality:

Peer assessment (weighting: 25 percent). The U.S. News ranking formula gives greatest weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence. The peer assessment survey allows the top academics we consult-presidents, provosts, and deans of admissions-to account for intangibles such as faculty dedication to teaching. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools’ academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). Those who don’t know enough about a school to evaluate it fairly are asked to mark “don’t know.” Synovate, an opinion-research firm based near Chicago, collected the data; of the 4,269 people who were sent questionnaires, 51 percent responded.
Retention (20 percent in national universities and liberal arts colleges and 25 percent in master’s and baccalaureate colleges). The higher the proportion of freshmen who return to campus the following year and eventually gradu ate, the better a school is apt to be at offering the classes and services students need to succeed. This measure has two components: six-year graduation rate (80 percent of the retention score) and freshman retention rate (20 percent). The graduation rate indicates the average proportion of a graduating class who earn a degree in six years or less; we consider freshman classes that started from 1997 through 2000. Freshman retention indicates the average proportion of freshmen entering from 2002 through 2005 who returned the following fall.

Faculty resources (20 percent). Research shows that the more satisfied students are about their contact with professors, the more they will learn and the more likely it is they will graduate. We use six factors from the 2006-07 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction. Class size has two components: the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30 percent of the faculty resources score) and the proportion with 50 or more students (10 percent of the score). In our model, a school benefits more for having a large proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students and a small proportion of large classes. Faculty salary (35 percent) is the average faculty pay, plus benefits, during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 aca demic years, adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living (using indexes from the consulting firm Runzheimer International). We also weigh the proportion of professors with the highest degree in their fields (15 percent), the student-faculty ratio (5 percent), and the proportion of faculty who are full time (5 percent). Student selectivity (15 percent). A school’s academic atmosphere is determined in part by the abilities and ambitions of the student body. We therefore factor in test scores of enrollees on the Critical Reading and Math portions of the sat or Composite act score (50 percent of the selectivity score); the proportion of enrolled freshmen (for all national universities and liberal arts colleges) who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and (for institutions in the universities-master’s and baccalaureate colleges) the top 25 percent (40 percent); and the acceptance rate, or the ratio of students admitted to applicants (10 percent). The data are for the fall 2006 entering class.

Financial resources (10 percent). Generous per-student spending indicates that a college can offer a wide variety of programs and services. U.S. News measures financial resources by using the average spending per student on instruction, research, student services, and related educational ex pendi tures in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. Spending on sports, dorms, and hospitals doesn’t count, only the part of a school’s budget that goes toward educating students. Graduation rate performance (5 percent; only in national universities and liberal arts colleges). This indicator of “added value” shows the effect of the college’s programs and policies on the graduation rate of students after controlling for spending and student characteristics. We meas ure the difference between a school’s six-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2000 and the rate we predicted for the class. If the actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college is enhancing achievement.

Alumni giving rate (5 percent). The average percentage of living alumni who gave to their school during 2004-05 and 2005-06 is an indirect measure of student satisfaction.

To arrive at a school’s rank, we first calculated the weighted sum of its scores. The final scores were rescaled: The top school in each category was assigned a value of 100, and the other schools’ weighted scores were calculated as a proportion of that top score. Final scores for each ranked school were rounded to the nearest whole number and ranked in descending order. Schools that receive the same rank are tied and are listed in alphabetical order. Our rankings of accredited undergraduate business programs and engineering programs are based exclusively on peer assessment data gathered from the programs’ deans and senior faculty members.

How can you best use our rankings? Mining the data for the information you need can definitely inform your thinking. The hard work is up to you.

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