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U.S. News College Rankings Focus More on Outcomes

U.S. News & World Report made a few changes to the way it evaluated colleges this year, placing less of an emphasis on admissions selectivity and more on retention and graduation rates. While the new methodology made a difference in the way some schools were ranked, it did not widely impact the top 10 percent of colleges and universities reviewed.

In this year's Best Colleges list released today, the importance of high school class rank was cut in half and increased weight was given to ACT and SAT scores. Overall, student input factors now account for 12.5 percent of a college's score, down from 15 percent.

Student outcomes, as measured by how many freshmen return to the school for a second year, and a school's six-year graduation rate, make up nearly 30 percent of the score. This year, U.S. News also expanded the use of its graduate rate performance indicator to all categories of schools, including regional universities and colleges.

The weight given to peer assessments, where college administrators rank other schools based on reputation, was reduced as well in the 2014 rankings from 22.5 percent to 20 percent in the national university and national liberal arts colleges lists and from 25 percent to 22.5 percent in the regional university and college categories. This aspect of the measure has been criticized for being subjective and focusing on an institution's perceived prestige.

Despite this tweaking of the methodology, the same schools rose to the top of the rankings, only changing order. Princeton University led the category of best national universities over Harvard, followed by Yale and Columbia. The University of Chicago tied for 5th with Stanford University, which moved up one notch. Duke University also improved its standing by one, coming in 7th in a tie with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania. California Institute of Technology and Dartmouth University rounded out the top 10.

The increased focus on outcomes in the U.S. News measure is similar to what President Obama proposed last month with a new value-based college rating system. However, Robert Morse of U.S. News said the magazine had decided on the methodology changes earlier in the summer, before the administration announced its idea. (For details on the methodology, see Morse's blog.)

In a media call Monday, Morse said methodology changes were "significant," although variables stayed the same. Morse also said the revisions to the formula were not influenced by the misreporting episodes that occurred at a handful of institutions last year. The data lapses were only at a "micro-percent" of schools reviewed and do not taint the overall integrity of the ranking, added Morse.

U.S. News last changed its methodology in 2011 and Morse said the magazine will continue to review its process: "We are not saying this is the final methodology." He said the magazine would closely watch how the government develops a rating system and would welcome greater access to data to better assess colleges, noting that value and outcomes will likely be emphasized more in the future.

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