U.S. News & World Report Releases Its 2022 College Rankings

By Michael T. Nietzel, Contributor

For the eleventh year in a row, Princeton University claims the top spot in U.S. News' Best College rankings. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Universal Images Group via Getty Images

U.S. News & World Report released its 2022 Best Colleges rankings today, featuring 1,466 colleges and universities that grant baccalaureate degrees. It’s the 37th year for the rankings, an indication of its unique staying power and undeniable influence for students, families and the general public.

For the eleventh straight year, Princeton tops the National University list, followed by Columbia, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which all tied for second. Williams College heads up the National Liberal Arts Colleges list, and UCLA once again claimed first place among Top Public Universities. 

Here are the five top-ranked schools in several major categories, defined by mission.

Best National Universities (392 schools). National universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors in addition to master's and doctoral degrees. Many also emphasize research.

1. Princeton University

2. Columbia University, Harvard University, MIT (tied)

5. Yale University

While there was some minor shuffling in the order of the top five, they’re the same institutions as last year. Of the top 20 national universities, 19 are private, not-for-profit institutions. UCLA was the only public institution in the top 20 last year, and it’s the only one again this year.

All the schools in the top 20 for 2021 are in 2022’s top 20, albeit in a slightly different order. This ranking inertia has come to be expected, the product of both institutional stability and - despite small, annual revisions - a largely consistent methodology. 

Best National Liberal Arts Colleges (223 schools). 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.

1. Williams College

2. Amherst College

3. Swarthmore College

4. Pomona College

5. Wellesley College

The top five institutions were unchanged from 2021.

Best National Public Universities (209 schools)

1. University of California, Los Angeles

2. University of California, Berkeley

3. University of Michigan

4. University of Virginia

5. University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Florida; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (tied) 

Of the top 10 public universities, six were campuses of the University of California.

Best Public Liberal Arts Colleges (24 schools)

1. U.S. Naval Academy

2. U.S. Military Academy

3. U.S. Air Force Academy

4. Virginia Military Institute

5. New College of Florida

The only change from last year was that the New College of Florida replaced St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the fifth spot.

Best Historically Black Colleges and Universities (78 schools)

1. Spelman College

2. Howard University

3. Xavier University of Louisiana

4. Hampton University, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University (tied)

Also included are rankings of different types of degree programs and other types of institutions such as the Best Regional Universities, Best Value Schools, the Best Performers on Social Mobility, the Most Innovative Schools and the Best Colleges for Veterans.

Methodology

U.S. News frequently revises its methodology, but this year saw no changes to its 17 measures of academic quality or the weights assigned to them. (The data came from schools surveyed in spring and summer of 2021. ACT and SAT scores mostly reflect testing periods from 2019 to early 2020, prior to pandemic disruptions.)

Here are two noteworthy changes this year in how scores were calculated. 

  • Colleges received full credit on ACT/SAT scores when reported on at least 50% of new entrants for fall 2020. In previous years, the threshold was 75%. This change was a response to the growth of test-optional policies and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the fall 2020 admissions process for many schools.
  • Metrics such as average class size, faculty salaries and the two student indebtedness indicators are now based on two-year averages. Previously, only one year of data was used.

Like last year, U.S. News again ranked "test blind" schools, for which data on SAT and ACT scores were not available. And like last year, these schools received a penalty of sorts - they were arbitrarily assigned a value on this indicator that’s equal to the lowest average test score of a school in the same category.

That decision won’t please critics who had called on U.S. News to end its practice of using average SAT and ACT scores of incoming students as part of its rankings. That request reflected in part the extent to which the pandemic had disrupted the administration of standardized tests.

An updated list of ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind schools by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing shows that more than 1,700 colleges and universities won’t require admissions test scores from applicants for fall 2022. That’s a significant increase across the past two years, involving more than 73% of all U.S. bachelor-degree granting institutions.

_____________ 

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.

__________

This year’s rankings continue last year’s small but meaningful shift toward educational outputs, as opposed to the premium that’s historically been placed on incoming student credentials and institutional inputs. However, concerns remain.

  • It’s still too easy for schools to game the rankings, in part because of the weight that’s given to the oft-maligned reputational survey. The response rate to that survey continues to decline, indicating that respondents themselves may be growing skeptical of it. Of the 4,741 academics sent questionnaires this year, only 34.1% responded, a decrease from the 36.4% response rate in 2020, and a precipitous drop from the 43% rate in 2019. It’s a dubious measure, as many academics acknowledge. It should be discontinued.
  • The various proxies for institutional wealth (e.g., faculty salaries and per-student spending) over-reward colleges that have abundant resources, resulting in the perennial dominance of private colleges in the rankings.
  • And the continued use of ACT and SAT scores becomes increasingly harder to justify, as institutions abandon their use in droves.

Although different ranking methodologies yield different results, among the best-known systems, the overlap - especially in the top tier of schools - is considerable. Nonetheless, the dozens of available rankings produce interesting contrasts that consumers should keep in mind. As examples:

Public universities fared particularly well in Forbes’ revised approach this year, as they did in Washington Monthly’s rankings, which emphasize the extent to which colleges promote upward mobility and encourage social and democratic participation by students. 

The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings use several standard outcome and resource measures but also include indicators on student engagement and campus diversity.

Academic Influence uses artificial intelligence technology to rank universities based on the cumulative impact of work by students and faculty who’ve been affiliated with them.

Niche gives special attention to the perspectives and experiences of students. How well alumni do economically is heavily weighted by Third Way, Money, and Optimal.

College rankings never seem to lose their appeal despite the many criticisms aimed at them. The pandemic threw something of a wrench in their works last year, but they’re up and running strong this year. Maybe that’s a good thing in the long run. The more, the better. Different looks for different lists.

Yes, college rankings are something of a rat race. They probably matter more than they should. Their stratification helps perpetuate a college caste system. And they may encourage some perverse institutional behavior.

However, for a public that needs information about its thousands of higher education options, rankings can also provide useful analysis. While they shouldn’t define the quality of colleges, they can help students and their families learn more about them. That’s why they still matter.


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