College & University Academic Rankings: The Top 3 Lists & How Ranking Systems Work

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Academic rankings are lists of colleges and universities that rank the schools according to a number of factors. Such rankings are most often determined through a combination of quantitative statistics and qualitative surveys. Although such ranking systems have been called into question by individuals and institutions, many students and parents find college rankings to be useful when choosing a school to attend. The following sections describe three of the most prestigious and well-known rankings in the United States.

Academic Ranking of World Universities

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is one of the top two academic rankings of colleges and universities around the world. First published in 2003, the ARWU bases its rankings on a formula that takes into account factors such as (1) number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, (2) number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific, (3) number of articles published or indexed in Nature and Science, the Science Citation Index, and Social Sciences Citation Index, and (4) per capita performance with respect to the size of an institution. The top ten schools in the US in 2009 as ranked by the ARWU are:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. University of California, Berkeley
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  5. California Institute of Technology
  6. Columbia University
  7. Princeton University
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Yale University
  10. Cornell University

Both The Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education argue that the ARWU is the most widely used and most influential international academic rating.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE) is the second of the top two ranking lists. First published in 2004, the THE bases its rankings heavily on peer review. The top ten American schools during 2009 as ranked by the THE are:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Yale University
  3. University of Chicago
  4. Princeton University
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  6. California Institute of Technology
  7. Columbia University
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. Johns Hopkins University
  10. Duke University

The THE also publishes rankings for schools with specific areas of expertise such as engineering and IT, life sciences and biomedicine, natural sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities.

U.S. News & World Report

The America’s Best Colleges report, which is published by the U.S. News & World Report, is the most well-known college ranking in the United States. First published in 1983, the America’s Best Colleges report ranks schools based on factors including peer assessment, retention rates, student selectivity, faculty resources, financial resources, graduate and retention rate, and alumni giving rate. This college academic rating system ranks schools in six categories: national universities, master’s universities, business programs, liberal arts colleges, baccalaureate colleges, and engineering programs. The top ten national universities for 2011 were:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Princeton University
  3. Yale University
  4. Columbia University
  5. University of Pennsylvania (tied for fifth)
  6. California Institute of Technology (tied for fifth)
  7. Massachusettes Institute of Technology (tied for seventh)
  8. Dartmouth College (tied for seventh)
  9. Duke University (tied for nineth)
  10. University of Chicago (tied for nineth)

The American’s Best Colleges report is published in print and is available for purchase.


Regardless of the prestige of such lists, academic rankings of colleges and universities should be taken with a grain of salt. The greatest criticism and controversy surrounding ranking lists involves questions of methodology. Additionally, because each publisher uses slightly different factors for ranking schools, the lists of rankings are not necessarily comparable. It can be one of several important factors to look at when selecting a college to attend. Students should ultimately make their decision based on what they would like to study, future goals, location, cost and a number of other factors. Rankings are one element of choosing a good school, which attests to the continued popularity of ranking lists like the ARWU, the THE, and the America’s Best Colleges report.

Although not without controversy, college academic rankings are still widely-used by prospective students for choosing a school to attend during the college admissions process.