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Little Change at the Top of U.S. News 'Best Colleges' Ranking

Princeton University is still the best national university. Williams College in Massachusetts is once again the top national liberal arts college, and the University of California, Berkeley remains the best public school among national universities.

These findings come in the 2015 edition of U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges" publication, released Sept. 9. While there was no change at the top of these various lists (Best National Universities, Best National Liberal Arts Colleges, Best Public National Universities), there were some shifts in position further down in the rankings. The magazine arrives at its decisions based on a formula that considers undergraduate reputation, selectivity, faculty resources, graduation and retention rates, financial resources, alumni giving, and graduate rate performance.

For last year's review, the magazine changed its methodology slightly to place more emphasis on retention and graduation rates, and less on admission selectivity.  This year, for the first time, each school's profile page features three-year federal-loan-default rates to give prospective students a sense of recent graduate's ability to pay back student loans. There is also a new 529 Finder that offers users the ability to compare state tax-advantaged savings plans.

The rankings have been criticized for presenting confusing impressions about college quality by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, among others. NACAC has a web page with resources to help students understand the shortcomings of the rankings and create their own college lists. 

To shift the focus from prestige to college affordability and student outcomes, the Obama administration has charged the U.S. Department of Education with devising a new college-rating system based on value. College leaders, however, are skeptical of its ability to gather accurate information.

U.S. News also offers a list of colleges based on value. The ranking takes into account a school's academic quality and the net cost of attendance for a student who receives the average level of need-based financial aid—the higher the quality of the program and the lower the cost, the better the deal. That list looks very similar to the Best College ranking, with Harvard, Princeton, and Yale leading in the value category, as well.

Also available this year are lists on campus ethnic diversity, economic diversity, historically black colleges and universities, freshman-retention rate, best undergraduate teaching, and high school counselor rankings.

At a time when there is increased concern about sexual assault on campus, U.S. News this year is publishing campus crime and security information reported by schools to the U.S. Department of Education. While not factored into the rankings, the information is available on each school's profile page.

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