U.S. News & World Report released its 2021 Best Colleges rankings today, featuring rankings of more than 1,400 colleges and universities that grant baccalaureate degrees. It’s the 36th year for the rankings, a testament not only to its unusual longevity but also its outsized influence for students, families and the general public
For the tenth straight year, Princeton tops the National University list, followed, also as in years past, by Harvard in second. Columbia was third, and MIT and Yale tied for fourth. Williams College heads up the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, and UCLA once again claimed first place among Top Public Universities.
Here are the five top-ranked schools in several of the major categories.
BEST NATIONAL UNIVERSITIES (389 SCHOOLS)
4.Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University (tie)
Of the top 20 national universities, 19 were private, not-forprofit institutions. UCLA was the only public school in the top 20. All the schools ranked in the top 20 National Universities in 2021 were in the top 20 in 2020, albeit in a slightly different order. This ranking inertia has come to be expected, the product of both institutional continuity and – despite small, annual revisions – a largely repetitive rankings methodology.
BEST NATIONAL LIBERAL ARTS (223 SCHOOLS)
4.Pomona College and Wellesley College (tie)
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 North Carolina, Chapel Hill Remarkably, of the top 11 national public universities, six were the various campuses of the University of California.
BEST PUBLIC LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES (23 SCHOOLS)
1.U.S. Naval Academy
2.U.S. Military Academy
3.U.S. Air Force Academy
4.Virginia Military Institute
5.St. Mary’s College of Maryland
BEST HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES (79 SCHOOLS)
3.Xavier University of Louisiana
TOP PERFORMERS ON SOCIAL MOBILITY NATIONAL UNIVERSITIES
1.University of California, Riverside
2.University of California, Irvine
3.Rutgers University, Newark
4.University of California, Santa Cruz
5.University of California, Merced
NATIONAL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES
1.College of Idaho
2.Lake Forest College (IL)
3.Thomas Aquinas College (CA)
5.University of Puerto Rico, Cayey
Overall, this year’s rankings reflect a small, but welcome, shift toward educational outputs, as opposed to incoming student credentials or institutional inputs. Although it remains too easy for schools to game the system, and too much weight is still focused on the highly subjective reputational measure and the various proxies for institutional wealth (e.g., faculty salaries and per-student spending), the methodological changes that U.S. News made this year represent clear improvements. Regarding the reputational survey, it’s of note that of the 4,816 academics who were sent questionnaires in 2020, only 36.4% responded, a substantial decline from the 43% response rate in 2019. It’s an increasingly questionable measure, one that should be discontinued.
Of special interest is the extent to which the pandemic and its many disruptions to the traditions of a college education – including admissions, classroom instruction, mentoring, residence life and even graduation ceremonies – may be rendering ranking systems less meaningful. How much does high school class standing mean if schools continue to resort more often to pass/fail grades? What does average class size really matter if everyone is attending only remotely? Ditto for the student:faculty ratio. And how are student services being delivered, let alone measured, if only a fraction of students live on campus?
The 2021 U.S. News rankings were based on data from 2019. They reflect the pre-pandemic college scene. How much those rankings will need to be changed to reflect post-pandemic realities, some of which may linger for some time to come, remains to be seen. Count it as one more example of how much higher education has changed in the last year.
By Michael T. Nietzel