Comparing college rankings: U.S. News v.s. Wall Street Journal

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With 2,637 four-year colleges in the U.S., it can be challenging for students to find the place where they belong. College rankings lists can make this easier by compiling information about all kinds of colleges and sorting them from best to worst.

One such list is the U.S. News annual list. They first began ranking colleges in 1983 and have published an annual report ever since; their most recent was released Sept. 18. 

Another list is from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). WSJ started ranking in 2016, but their rankings are drastically different from U.S. News.. For example, Johns Hopkins, which is number nine on U.S. News, is No. 99 on the WSJ list. New York University also differs in placement on the lists, ranked No. 35 on US News and No. 166 on WSJ. Florida International University is ranked No. 124 in US News but No. 29 on WSJ.

While both lists agree on some placements, such as most of the top 10 colleges, the differences occur due to the different methodology used by the sites.

The U.S. News considers 16 categories when ranking schools with some holding greater weight than others. For example, while 16% of the methodology is based on graduation rates (proportion of each class earning a bachelors in six years or less), only 2.5% is based on the graduation rate of first generation college students.

Some other categories include graduation rate performance (GRP), peer assessment and financial resources. GRP is the graduation rate compared to the predictions based on previous years data. The peer assessment is a survey sent to faculty at different colleges about their opinions on the academic quality of other schools. Finally, financial resources is the average amount of money the college spends per student on things like services and programs.

WSJ, on the other hand, uses three main categories with subsets in each. The three main categories are: student outcomes (worth 70%), learning environment (worth 20%) and diversity (worth 10%). 

Student outcomes include subcategories such as the average salary boost the college provides to students after they graduate and the graduation rate. Learning environment encompasses categories such as learning opportunities and quality of career preparation. Lastly, diversity includes categories like proportion of disabled students and international students.

One of the most important differences between the two methods of ranking is that while U.S. News focuses more on the prestige of a college, WSJ hones in on student experience.

U.S. News does not survey any students for their opinions. Instead, they survey college presidents, deans, and provosts on how they feel about the different colleges. Meanwhile, WSJ surveys students on topics  such as if they would recommend the college to a friend, the quality of classrooms and their rankings of professors. In total, WSJ surveyed 60,953 students while U.S. News surveyed 4,734 college presidents for peer assessments.

Another difference is that while WSJ’s list does not differentiate between types of colleges, U.S. News separates the liberal arts college ranking list from the national universities list.

Both sites have accurate data and the better one can only be determined by individual preference. Students who use both sites are able to decide which criteria matters most to them, whether prestige, student experience or a combination, and determine which college is the best fit for them.