Princeton University is the top-ranked national university and Williams College is the best liberal arts college in the nation, according to the just-released US News & World Report Best Colleges for 2022-23. Princeton and Williams also claimed the top spots in their respective categories in last year’s US News‘rankings.
This is the 38th year for the rankings, testimony to its unique, senior position among the ever-growing number of college ranking systems.
This year, US News ranked a total of 1,500 colleges in various institutional categories, based on 17 differentially weighted metrics. Here are the five top-ranked schools in several major categories, defined by mission or specific outcomes. (About 10% of schools switched ranking categories this year because of updates in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which US News uses to categorize schools.)
Best National Universities
National universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors in addition to master’s, doctoral and professional degrees. Many also emphasize research. The top five were:
- Princeton University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Harvard University, Stanford University, Yale University (tied)
This is the 12th straight year that Princeton has led the national university list. The rest of the top 20 are very similar to last year’s rankings, with one notable exception. Columbia University, which initially was ranked in a tie for second but was later dropped from the rankings because of questions about the accuracy of its data, was rated 18th this year, in a tie with Notre Dame University.
Only two public institutions were ranked among the top 20 national universities – the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles. Last year, UCLA was the only public university to crack the top 20. All eight schools in the Ivy League made the top 20.
Among the universities in the top 100, US News singled out two big movers from last year’s rankings – the University of California, Santa Cruz jumped up 20 spots from a tie at No. 103 to a tie at No. 83; and Brigham Young University dropped 10 spots from a tie at No. 79 to a tie at No. 89. In the top 50, the University of Illinois moved up six places, from 47th to a three-way tie at 41st.
Best National Liberal Arts Colleges
These colleges emphasize undergraduate education and award at least 50% of their degrees in fields such as languages and literature, biology and life sciences, philosophy, cultural studies and psychology. The top five were:
1. Williams College
2. Amherst College
3. Pomona College
4. Swarthmore College
5. Wellesley College
The top five were unchanged from 2022, except that Pomona moved up one place and Swarthmore dropped one rank. Of the top 20 national liberal arts colleges, only three were public institutions, all of them US military service academies – the US Military Academy at West Point, the US Naval Academy and the US Air Force Academy.
Best Public Universities
The University of California Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles tied for the top spot among public universities, followed by the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia (tied for third) and the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (tied for 5th).
Six of the University of California campuses made the top 20, as did seven institutions in the Big Ten Conference.
Top Performers on Social Mobility
US News assesses this category based on institutions’ success in graduating large proportions of students receiving Pell Grants. The top five national universities were:
1. Keizer University (FL)
2. University of California, Riverside
3. California State University – Long Beach
4. Florida International University
5 University of California, Merced
The top five national liberal arts colleges for social mobility were:
1. Salem College (NC)
2. Lake Forest College (IL)
3. Tougaloo College (MS)
4. University of Puerto Rico – Cayay
5. Spelman College
Best Historically Black Colleges and Universities
The top five HBCUs were:
1. Spelman College
2. Howard University
3. Tuskegee University
4. Morehouse College
5. Xavier University of Louisiana
US News ranks colleges in several other categories, including the best colleges and universities by regionthe most innovative schoolsthe best colleges for veteransand the best value schools, which “weighs a college’s academic quality alongside the net cost of attendance for a student who received the average level of need-based financial aid.”
The 2022 ranking variables and their weights for the National Universities (some weights are slightly different for other institutional types) are as follows:
Outcomes (40%). 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) and two measures of student indebtedness.
Faculty Resources (20%). Class size, student: faculty ratio, average faculty salary, proportions of faculty who are full time, and who have earned the terminal degree in their discipline.
Expert Opinion (20%). Reputational ratings where presidents, provosts, and admissions deans give their opinions of other schools.
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 standing.
Alumni Giving (3%). The percentage of bachelor’s degree graduates who donate to their institution in a given year.
While US News frequently revises its methodology, this year saw few changes to its 17 measures or the weights assigned to them. Two revisions deserve mention.
- Institutions “where a minority of new entrants submitted SAT / ACT scores in consecutive years – including“ test-blind ”schools – had those scores’ 5% weight in the ranking formula reallocated to other ranking factors. For schools where only their more recent (fall 2021) entering class had a minority submitting – often in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – their fall 2020 scores were used instead. “
- The percent of instructional faculty with a terminal degree now also includes the share of part-time faculty with a terminal degree. Previously, this metric involved only full-time faculty.
Although this newest treatment of standardized test scores won’t please critics who’ve urged US News to end its use of SAT and ACT scores in its rankings, it’s still an improvement over last year when “test blind” schools, for which data on SAT and ACT scores were not available, received a penalty of sorts – they were arbitrarily assigned a value on this indicator that equalled the lowest average test score of schools in the same ranking category.
With more than 1,800 four-year colleges and universities not requiring standardized admission tests for 2023, their days as a US News ranking factor may be numbered. And in fact, a statement accompanying the ratings this year suggested that a change may be coming – commenting on the role of standardized tests in its methodology, US News said it “will not commit to its approach for next edition’s rankings.”
Described by Colin Diver in Breaking Ranks as the 800-pound gorilla of college rankings, US News started a new industry nearly 40 years ago that now includes more than a dozen national ranking systems, each using a methodology that differs either moderately or substantially from US News. A major emphasis of these other rankings has been to put more emphasis on outcomes – like graduation rates, social mobility, career success and social contributions – rather than on inputs and subjective opinions, for which US News has been frequently and justifiably criticized.
While critics will still find much to dislike about some US News’ indicators – the reputation score and alumni giving are two obvious examples – it’s important to recognize that the its methodology has improved considerably over the years. The “outcomes” category now accounts for 40% of the overall ranking; social mobility by a college’s lower-income students is given greater weight; student indebtedness is now considered, while applicant rejection rates are not; and standardized test scores – a favorite target of many observers – may be on its last legs.
Are college rankings problematic? In a word, yes. They probably attract more attention than they should. Some of them perpetuate a college hierarchy overdetermined by institutional wealth. And they dangle incentives that can result in institutional mischief and misplaced priorities.
However, they are also a fact of American life for a public that wants up-to-date information about its higher education choices. Rankings do not and should not define the value of a college for a specific student, but they can help students and their families learn more about their college options. And that’s why – like it or not – they are not going away.