U.S. News & World Report, once “the” source for college rankings, no longer monopolizes the field. Other national and international rankings—such as Forbes, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, and Times Higher Education World Rankings—use different criteria and find different results for universities in North Carolina and around the world.
U.S. News listed many universities in North Carolina in its yearly “Best Colleges” rankings, released September 13. In National University Rankings, Duke University was ranked tenth, Wake Forest was ranked 25th, and UNC-Chapel Hill was ranked 29th. NC State tied Florida State for 101st.
But another national ranking—published by Forbes magazine and created by Rich Vedder’s Center for College Affordability and Productivity—disagreed. All three schools fell dramatically on the Forbes list. Duke came in 22nd, Wake Forest was 77th, and Carolina was 74th.
The difference between the rankings can be found in the magazines’ methodologies. U.S. News bases its ratings primarily on the opinions of administrators at peer institutions, student retention rates, how well-paid the faculty are paid and what kind of degrees they have, average class sizes, how selective the student body is, the school’s financial resources, what percentage of the alumni donate money. For its lists of National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges (its most prestigious lists) rankings include high school counselor ratings of colleges and "graduation rate performance"—the effect of the college's programs and policies on the graduation rate. The data come from the schools themselves, the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics, and the following organizations: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the NCAA, and the Council for Aid to Education.
Forbes includes graduation rates and average student debt levels and attempts to measure the quality of teaching and students’ career prospects—using Who’s Who, payscale.com, and Forbes/CCAP’s corporate officers list. Forbes proclaims on its website: “Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school ‘reputation’ and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending.”
Differences continue down the line. U.S. News ranks a total of 1600 schools across various categories—like “Best Regional Universities” and “Best Value.” It also differentiates universities (mainly research institutions) from colleges (mainly liberal arts or teaching institutions). In contrast, Forbes ranks all 650 universities in its study on one master list.
These differences make comparisons between the two rankings difficult. Since U.S. News doesn’t publish numerical ranks past 200 and since each school only appears on one list, it’s impossible to know how a highly ranked regional university compares to national or liberal arts universities according to U.S. News’ metrics.
In U.S. News’ ranking of Southern regional universities, Appalachian State University ranked tenth, UNC-Wilmington ranked 11th, Queens University of Charlotte ranked 21st, Campbell University ranked 28th, Western Carolina ranked 32nd, Wingate University was ranked 39th, and Gardner-Webb was ranked 47th.
Forbes ranked Appalachian 438th nationally, UNC-Wilmington ranked 417th. And Queens, Campbell, Western, and Wingate didn’t make Forbes’ list at all.
In U.S. News’ ranking Southern regional colleges, Catawba College was ranked 16th, Elizabeth City State was ranked 28th, Mars Hill and Methodist tied for 35th, Belmont Abbey was ranked 38th, and Barton College was ranked 42nd. Forbes ranked Catawba College 476th. No other regional colleges in North Carolina made Forbes’ list.
US News also has a “Best Value” ranking for colleges. U.S. News limits this list to schools ranked in or near the top half of their categories. Four North Carolina schools were among the top 50 national universities for U.S. News’ “Best Value” ranking. U.S. News’ calculation for Best Value takes into account a school's academic quality and the 2010-2011 net cost of attendance for a student who receives the average level of need-based financial aid.
In this category, Duke University was ranked ninth, UNC-Chapel Hill was ranked 12th, NC State was ranked 20th, and Wake Forest was ranked 33rd. Forbes doesn’t have a separate category for top-value schools; average student debt is included among the metrics for its national rankings.
Despite the confusing contradictions, we don’t think students should worry too much about the rankings. In our view, what students and parents need isn’t rankings al all. The important element of rankings is the facts and statistics that underlie them, not where they fall on a mythical “quality” line. Students and parents can get a fuller picture of what North Carolina’s schools are like by visiting NCCollegeFinder.org. This interactive website produced by the Pope Center provides statistics and data and ratings for 54 North Carolina schools. We include both the kind of information that goes into the U.S. News and Forbes lists and some others of our own that give a better picture of academic quality and transparency. But you (the reader) do the ranking.