In the higher education universe, rankings from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, The Princeton Review and elsewhere can play outsized roles. In fact, one-quarter of the country’s 100 largest public four-year universities explicitly mention the importance of national rankings in their strategic plans, according to a 2021 analysis by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
And UVA is among those schools aiming to rise to the very top. Becoming the “best” and “leading” public university in the nation by 2030 are among the goals that President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) has set as part of his Great and Good Plan, though not specifically referring to U.S. News & World Report. In January, UVA ranked fifth among public colleges and #1 among flagship universities that had the highest 40-year return on investment for low-income students in a ranking from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In response, Ryan tweeted, “This is both great and good.”
College rankings are intended to help students discover the best college for themselves. But critics point out that in the decades since their debut, rankings have prompted plenty of thorny issues as universities game the system to zoom toward the top and parents jockey to get their children into highly ranked schools.
There’s no doubt that prospective UVA students are looking at the rankings when deciding where they’ll attend. When college freshmen across the country were asked in 2019 what factors were “very important” in selecting their school, just 15 percent selected rankings in national magazines, according to the latest survey from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA.
But when UVA first-years answered the same question, 40 percent said rankings were “very important,” compared with 28 percent of students at comparable highly selective public schools and 30 percent at very highly selective peer private schools. For reference, the responses of freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill closely mirrored those of UVA’s first-years. There, 39 percent said rankings in national magazines were “very important.” Top factors for all respondents were the academic reputation of the institution and the good jobs that graduates get.
For UVA’s part, leaders say the institution isn’t changing course because an expanded program or new endowment will mean a move up to #1. An improved ranking, and the reputation boost that comes with it, will be a natural byproduct of the goal—building that “great” and “good” university that Ryan envisions, a place where students, faculty and staff are focused on not just achievement, but also ethics, values and community impact, they say.
“The basic idea for me is that when we’re true to who we are, and we go about our work in a way that’s both honorable and smart and caring, the rankings will take care of themselves,” says Stephen Farmer (Grad ’86), vice provost for enrollment. “And our reputation will take care of itself.”
When UVA tumbled in the U.S. News 2020 rankings, Ryan said at the time that rankings do not guide the University. “Rankings are something that do not drive what we do and shouldn’t drive what we do, but we obviously have to pay attention to them. I’m competitive enough that if we are going to be ranked, I’d like to be ranked highly,” he said.
Flaws and failings
To be sure, while rankings play a big role in higher education, the flaws, failings and over-reliance on just the U.S. News rankings alone have made headlines often in the past year.
In November 2021, Temple University’s former business school dean was sentenced to 14 months in prison for providing false and misleading information to U.S. News to inflate its ranking of some of the school’s MBA programs.
In February 2022, a math professor at Columbia University raised serious questions about the data that the Ivy League institution, rated #2, had shared with the publication, prompting the school to announce that it would not participate in the next round of U.S. News rankings. In March, the University of Southern California pulled its education school from the list because of a “history of inaccuracies” over at least five years.
When Virginia Magazine asked about the controversies and criticism, U.S. News shared a statement it has given to other publications.
“We know students and their families find value in our rankings. We strive to provide them with data and information to help make important decisions, using the rankings as one factor in their college search,” the statement says.
“We rely on schools to accurately report their data and ask academic officials to verify that data. As always, we continuously welcome feedback that helps us to improve our rankings.”
Hot sauce for votes
U.S. News’ Best Colleges list debuted in 1983 as the cost of college was starting to skyrocket. Parents wanted to be sure they were making smart decisions with their money, and, without the internet, information was hard to come by. The magazine “got caught up in this huge wave of interest,” says Jed Macosko, a Wake Forest University physics professor and research director and chief public liaison for Academic Influence, which uses technology to rate the academic influence of universities.
The magazine’s first list relied only on academic reputation, using college presidents’ ratings of peer schools. Over time, the methodology grew more complex. Today, the calculation also includes a long list of more objective factors such as average faculty salaries, the first-year student retention rate, the federal loan debt of graduates and the high school standing of the incoming class.
But the peer assessment survey remains and makes up 20 percent of the total ranking though most administrators—presidents, provosts and deans of admission—never return them. About 34 percent of the administrators who received the survey filled it out in 2021, down from 36 percent in 2020, according to U.S. News.
With so few filling out the survey, Florida State leaders wrote in Inside Higher Education this year that it isn’t much different from a March Madness bracket. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that U.S. News voters often rank colleges in self-interest or based on a college’s historical success,” they wrote.
And, over the decades, college leaders have sought creative ways to boost their rankings. The president of Rowan University famously sends his hot sauce to his peers in hopes of influencing how they rate his institution in the peer assessment survey. In 2007, the Arizona State University president’s contract included a $60,000 bonus for a better U.S. News rating. In 2008, Baylor University offered a $1,000 a year merit scholarship to incoming freshmen who took the SAT again and boosted their score by 50 points. (U.S. News’ calculations measure SAT scores of incoming freshmen to rate the excellence of a school’s students.)
More rankings, direct impact
U.S. News’ list also sparked an explosion of competitors. Forbes, Princeton Review, The Wall Street Journal and other organizations now churn out annual rankings.
Rankings critics, including Macosko, say the lists encourage parents and students to seek out only those top-ranked schools—and colleges to take action to ensure they get there. That’s only hurting the psyche of teens, especially as it gets harder to gain admission to top schools. In 30 years, the offer rate at UVA went from 43 percent in 1992 to 19 percent in 2022. “That pressure to get into the top-ranked school was not there [before the rankings] because there was no list that was shoved in your face,” Macosko says.
And while the intention of U.S. News’ first list might have been to help students and parents—as is still its stated purpose—the rankings no longer simply provide nice-to-have information. They have a direct impact on schools.
Researchers have found that moving up just one position on the U.S. News list can lead to higher SAT scores for the incoming class and an increased net tuition for the very next year. A 2017 report in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found that when schools dropped out of the top 50 and off the first page of the printed guide, total applications dropped by as much as 6 percent.
For already-leading institutions like UVA, however, the benefits of a move up are minimal, Farmer says. “At a place like ours, the changes are subtle, and they accrue over time.”
Families can glean information from rankings that can help with the decision process, says Margaret Bolton Baudinet (Col ’07), CEO of College Solutions, which helps students with the college application process. U.S. News provides insight into a school’s retention and graduation rates. Forbes measures student satisfaction. Princeton Review looks at financial outcomes.
But, while U.S. News filled a void in 1983, today’s college search process is dramatically different. Students no longer need to order a thick book to get information about colleges. A wealth of information is available from other sources online too.
The more useful rankings are those that rate specific programs or fields that a student is interested in studying, Baudinet says. U.S. News evaluates academic programs, such as nursing and engineering, but Baudinet also steers students to rankings completed by national associations or professional trade publications. “U.S. News knows a lot, but these are the people who do the work every day,” she says.
With so much information at their fingertips, discerning students also might be beginning to cool to the rankings. In the 2010 UCLA national survey, 49 percent of UVA first-year students said magazine rankings were “very important” in their college search. That dropped to 40 percent in 2019. “In my work, rankings seem to be very important mostly to parents and secondly to alumni,” says Baudinet, who formerly worked at the UVA Alumni Association, where she counseled the children of alumni on college planning. “Rankings seem less important to students—unless students are listening to their parents.”
When Tyler Rynne (Arch ’22) was evaluating colleges, his focus was on his planned field of study—urban planning. He considered accredited programs and looked at rankings, but not those that claim to broadly rate a university’s overall quality. Instead, he narrowed his search by looking to the experts in the field he wanted to study—considering top urban planning programs as evaluated by Planetizen, a planning publication.
He considered a wide range of schools, including UVA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Ohio State University. “I knew that UNC was a good school. I knew that Ohio State was up there. But, for me, it was more kind of just like, these are good schools. If it’s in the top 20 or top 50, it’s going to be a good education,” he said. “Even in high school, I realized the flawed metrics that they were looking at these with. … It was much more down to the fit of the school for myself as opposed to the numbers on the paper.”
See where UVA stacks up against the competition
U.S. News’ Best Colleges list debuted in 1983 and sparked an explosion of competitors. Forbes, Princeton Review, The Wall Street Journal and other organizations now churn out annual rankings based on factors ranging from staff-student ratio to graduation rate and student debt. Here’s where UVA falls on the lists published by August 2022.
- Best Schools for Financial Aid, Princeton Review
- Colleges in the South, Money Magazine
- Best Public Colleges, Money Magazine
- Best Value Public Colleges, Princeton Review
- Best Value Colleges without Aid (Public), Princeton Review
- Best Alumni Networks (Public), Princeton Review
- Among Public Universities, U.S. News
- Best Career Placement, Princeton Review
- Best Undergraduate Business Program, U.S. News
- Best Law School, U.S. News
- Best Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program, U.S. News
- Best Nursing School (Master’s), U.S. News
- Best Business School, U.S. News
- Best Nursing School (Doctor of Nursing Practice), U.S. News
- Best Education School (Graduate School), U.S. News
- Among National Universities, U.S. News
- Among Top Colleges, Forbes
- Best Medical School (Research), U.S. News
- Best Medical School (Primary Care), U.S. News
- Best Engineering School (Graduate), U.S. News
Rankings by publication
U.S. News Best Colleges
Description: A heavyweight in the college rankings business, U.S. News debuted the Best Colleges list in 1983. It now provides an array of rankings of national universities, liberal arts colleges, graduate schools and more.
Factors: The methodology has changed over the years. Originally, it only considered academic reputation. College presidents rated peer schools. Today, many more categories are considered, but a peer assessment survey to rate an institution’s undergraduate academic reputation remains an important part of the score. College presidents, provosts and deans of admissions fill out the peer assessment survey.
The methodology to build the Best Colleges list weights the following factors:
- Graduation and Retention Rates:
- 22 percent
- Undergraduate Academic Reputation:
- 20 percent
- Faculty Resources for 2020-21 Academic Year:
- 20 percent
- Financial Resources Per Student:
- 10 percent
- Graduate Rate Performance:
- 8 percent
- Student Selectivity for the Fall 2020 Entering Class:
- 7 percent
- Social Mobility:
- 5 percent
- Graduate Indebtedness:
- 5 percent
- Average Alumni Giving Rate:
- 3 percent
Note: With all rankings, it’s important to note that methodology can change over time. It’s not always possible to compare year-to-year rankings.
UVA’s Historical Rankings:
UVA has historically done well in these rankings, in part because of its high graduation and retention rates.
- #26 national; #4 public
- #28 national; #4 public
- #25 national; #3 public
- #25 national; #3 public
- #24 national; #2 public
- #26 national; #3 public
Click or tap the category headings below to expand each section.
- Best Colleges for Veterans:
#9. This is a ranking of Best Colleges institutions that participate in federal programs that make it easier for veterans and service members to get a college degree.
- Best Value Schools:
#31. This is calculated based on an institution’s position on the Best Colleges ranking and the net cost for an out-of-state student who receives an average amount of need-based financial aid.
- Best First-Year Experience:
#54. This is based on the input of college presidents, chief academic officers, deans of students and deans of admissions who nominated up to 15 institutions with a “stellar example of first-year experiences.” UVA is tied with Bucknell University, Clemson University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Kennesaw State University, Lawrence University, Ohio State University, Spelman College and Swarthmore College.
- Best Undergraduate Teaching:
#71. This is based on surveys of top academics who were asked which institutions have an “unusually strong commitment to undergraduate teaching.” UVA is tied with Colorado School of Mines, Drake University, Florida State University, George Mason University, Indiana University-Bloomington, Northwestern University, Oregon State University, Rowan University, St. John’s University, Texas Christian University, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Villanova University.
- Top Performers in Social Mobility:
#297. This is a measurement of graduation rates and graduation rate performance for students who received the federal Pell Grant, along with graduate indebtedness. UVA is tied with Colorado State University, Ferris State University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Marquette University, Northeastern University, Sacred Heart University, Texas Southern University, Touro University, University of Akron, University of Kentucky, University of Michigan, University of Toledo and Yeshiva University.
- Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs (among schools whose highest degree is a doctorate):
#36, tied with Arizona State University, Brown University, North Carolina State University, University of Notre Dame and Vanderbilt University.
Subcategory: Biomedical: #29, tied with Arizona State, University of Florida and University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
- Best Undergraduate Business Program:
#8, tied with Cornell University, Indiana University-Bloomington and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Subcategories: Management: #7, tied with Texas A&M University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Marketing: #7. Finance: #11, tied with Ohio State University. Accounting: #26, tied with Carnegie Mellon, Emory University, Georgetown University and Saint Joseph’s University. Business Analytics: #27, tied with Boston College, Cornell, Loyola Marymount University, N.C. State and University of Arizona. International Business: #29, tied with Case Western Reserve University, University of Miami and University of Richmond.
- Best Undergraduate Computer Science Program:
#31, tied with New York University, University of California-Davis, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, UNC-Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech.
Subcategories: Cybersecurity: #28, tied with Arizona State, Dakota State University, George Mason, Rochester Institute of Technology, Texas A&M, United States Military Academy, University of California-Los Angeles and University of Texas at San Antonio. Data Analytics/Science: #22, tied with Johns Hopkins University and University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
- Best Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program:
#10, tied with Case Western Reserve, Ohio State University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, UCLA, University of Iowa, University of Maryland-Baltimore, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and University of Nebraska Medical Center.
- Best Business School:
#14. Based on career placement success, student excellence, and qualitative assessments by business school deans and directors and employers.
- Best Education School:
#17. Based on research activity, the academic excellence of incoming students, faculty resources, and opinions of education school deans and employers.
- Best Engineering School:
#37. Based on research activity, the academic excellence of incoming students, faculty resources, and assessments from other engineering schools and employers.
- Best Law School:
#8. Based on the placement of graduates, faculty resources, academic achievements of incoming students and the opinions of law schools, lawyers and judges.
- Best Medical School (Research):
#30, tied with Ohio State. Based on faculty resources, incoming students’ academic achievement, opinions of schools and residency directors, and research productivity.
- Best Medical School (Primary Care):
#35. Based on faculty resources, incoming students’ academic achievement, opinions of schools and residency directors, and measurements related to the number of graduates practicing in primary care specialties and in primary care residencies.
- Best Nursing School (Master’s):
#13, tied with the University of Illinois-Chicago. Based on research activity, faculty resources, student excellence, program size and ratings by experts.
- Best Nursing School (Doctor of Nursing Practice):
#15, tied with Case Western Reserve and Rutgers University-Newark. Based on research activity, faculty resources, student excellence, program size and ratings by experts.
- Biological Sciences:
#50, tied with Purdue University-West Lafayette, Rice University, University of Arizona, UC-Santa Barbara, University of Florida, University of Georgia and University of Pittsburgh.
#42, tied with Carnegie Mellon, Michigan State University, Notre Dame, University of Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis.
- Clinical Psychology:
#18, tied with Duke University, Emory, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, University of Iowa, University of Kansas, University of Miami, Vanderbilt University and Yale University.
- Computer Science:
#28, tied with Northwestern University, Rice University, University of California-Irvine, UC-Santa Barbara and University of Chicago.
- Earth Sciences:
#56, tied with Michigan State, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of Nevada-Reno and University of Oklahoma.
#30, tied with UNC-Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis.
#11, tied with UCLA.
#18, tied with Brown and Duke.
#39, tied with Michigan State, UC-Santa Barbara, University of Illinois-Chicago, Notre Dame, University of Southern California, University of Utah and Washington University in St. Louis.
#41, tied with Texas A&M University-College Station, University of Arizona, University of Florida, Notre Dame, University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis.
- Political Science:
#28, tied with Indiana University-Bloomington, Rice University, Stony Brook University, Texas A&M University-College Station and University of Maryland-College Park.
#30, tied with New York University, Ohio State, UC-Irvine and University of Maryland-College Park.
- Public Affairs:
#35, tied with Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland-College Park and Virginia Commonwealth University.
- Public Health:
#54, tied with Georgia State University, Loma Linda University, Morehouse School of Medicine, St. Louis University, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, University of Louisville, University of Maryland-Baltimore and University of Nebraska Medical Center.
#34, tied with Emory, Rice, UC-Santa Barbara, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Southern California and Vanderbilt.
- Speech-Language Pathology:
#45, tied with Case Western Reserve, Northeastern University, Ohio University, University of Georgia, University of Kentucky, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, University of Vermont and Utah State University.
#44, tied with Temple University, University of California-Riverside, UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Santa Cruz.
Forbes America’s Top Colleges
Description: Since launching in 2008, the ranking focuses less on school reputation and more on student outcomes.
Factors: The methodology to build Forbes’ list weights the following factors in these ways:
- Alumni Salary:
- 20 percent
- 15 percent
- Return on Investment:
- 15 percent
- Graduation Rate:
- 15 percent
- Forbes American Leaders List, a compilation of alumni on Forbes lists such as Forbes 30 Under 30, Forbes 400 and Most Powerful Women:
- 15 percent
- Retention Rate:
- 10 percent
- Academic Success:
- 10 percent
With a focus on alumni salary, debt and return on investment, UVA’s place is based, in large part, on those factors. In the most recent ranking, UVA’s median 10-year salary was $125,200, average grant aid was $23,377 and average debt was $7,904. #1-ranked UC-Berkeley, however, boasted a median 10-year salary of $138,800. And while its average grant aid was lower than UVA, at $19,126, the average debt for graduates was only $6,000.
- List suspended
Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings
Description: These rankings, first published in 2016, emphasize student success and learning. They consider U.S. colleges and universities that award four-year bachelor’s degrees, have more than 1,000 students, have 20 percent or fewer online-only students (with an exception during the COVID-19 pandemic), and whose students can receive federal aid.
Factors: These rankings dive into four categories:
- 30 percent. Includes spending per student, student-faculty ratio, and research papers per faculty member
- 20 percent. Includes data from a survey of students on topics such as student engagement, student recommendations and interaction with teachers and students, along with the number of accredited programs.
- 40 percent. Includes graduation rate, graduate salary, debt after graduation and academic reputation, which is calculated based on a survey of leading scholars.
- 10 percent. Includes the proportion of international students, student diversity and inclusion, and staff diversity.
UVA did well in the outcomes ranking, coming in at #30, but came in much lower than other top-ranked schools on the three other categories—#176 for resources, #312 for engagement and #366 for environment. By comparison, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the top-ranked public university on the list at #24, scored #16 in outcomes, #65 in resources, #4 for engagement and #236 for environment.
Times Higher Education World University Rankings
Description: Launched in 2004, the ranking evaluates more than 1,500 universities around the world.
Factors: The ranking considers five categories, using the results of an Academic Reputation Survey, which is sent to a random sample of academics, and other data:
- Teaching (the learning environment):
- 30 percent. Considers the results of the reputation survey, along with staff-student ratio, doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio, doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio, and institutional income.
- 30 percent. Considers results from the reputation survey, along with research income and productivity.
- Citations (research influence):
- 30 percent. Considers the average number of times an institution’s published work is cited by scholars globally.
- International Outlook (staff, students, research):
- 7.5 percent. Considers the number of international students, proportion of international staff and the amount of international collaboration.
- Industry Income:
- 2.5 percent. Considers an institution’s ability to “attract funding in the commercial marketplace.”
QS World University Rankings
Description: QS Quacquarelli Symonds provides services, analytics and insights to global higher education institutions and launched its QS World University Rankings in 2004.
Factors: The ranking considers six categories with a big focus on the results of surveys of academics and employers:
- Academic reputation:
- 40 percent. Based on the results of the survey of academics.
- Employer reputation:
- 10 percent. Based on the results of the employer survey.
- Faculty-student ratio:
- 20 percent
- Citations per faculty:
- 20 percent
- International faculty ratio:
- 5 percent
- International student ratio:
- 5 percent
|Citations per faculty:||36.5||62.5|
|International faculty ratio:||6.7||71.2|
|International students ratio:||10.9||33.1|
Academic Ranking of World Universities
Description: First published in 2003 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, the ranking is now completed by ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, which provides higher education intelligence. The list features the top 1,000 universities out of more than 2,000 ranked.
Factors: The ranking considers four categories with a big focus on the quality of the faculty and their research:
- Quality of Faculty:
- 40 percent. Ranks number of staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals and highly cited researchers.
- Research Output:
- 40 percent. Ranks number of papers published in Nature and Science and indexed in the Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index.
- Quality of Education:
- 10 percent. Ranks number of alumni winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals.
- Per Capita Performance:
- 10 percent. This is a calculation of the other rankings divided by the number of full-time equivalent academic staff.
|Alumni with Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals:||0||63.8|
|Staff with Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals:||0||80|
|Highly cited research papers:||17.9||57.4|
|Papers in Nature and Science:||21.7||64.8|
|Per capita performance:||17.5||55.9|
- 2021 to 2016:
- 2015 to 2012:
Princeton Review Best Value Colleges (Public)
Description: Launched in 2004, Princeton Review’s rankings emphasize an institution’s return on investment—the cost to attend and the salary of alumni.
Factors: The ranking considers PayScale.com data from alumni surveys; an academic rating that evaluates how difficult it is to be admitted; a financial aid rating, using school-reported data and student opinion; and college costs, a calculation of the cost of attendance minus the average amount of scholarships and grants awarded to students.
According to the Princeton Review, “Along with the low in-state tuition, academic rigor is the reason many students choose UVA.”
Other Princeton Review Rankings
- Top 20 Best Value Colleges without Aid (Public):
- Top 20 Best Alumni Networks (Public):
- Top 20 Best Career Placement (Public):
- Top 20 Best Schools for Financial Aid: