I gave thought to what might be important to me if I were doing it all over again today, and put together my own list of criteria and weightings to create a personalized ranking of colleges. I chose to place my focus on the classroom experience and on student satisfaction with the college.

I focused on colleges with a median SAT score of roughly 1350 or above (based on 2019-20 Common Data Sets), at which the vast majority of students have scores in the top 10%. If this grouping doesn’t make sense for you, though, you could easily do this for any range of colleges that fits your wants and needs better. You could also use some criterion other than strength of test scores to narrow your search–perhaps cost, or size of the school, or distance from home.

I also chose not to separate schools into national universities and liberal arts colleges like USNWR does, because it seems useful to me to be able to compare all colleges together. Here are the criteria and weightings I chose:

% of class sections with fewer than 30 students

Total number of class sections

First-year retention rate

Student diversity

Faculty diversity

% of full-time faculty with highest degree in their field

Do students think their professors teach well?

Are students happy with other important factors?

20%

20%

10%

10%

10%

10%

10%

10%

The first two are given heavier weight because I strongly value both small classes and having lots of options. I studied some at both a small liberal arts college and a large university, and each had its benefits and drawbacks. I loved the small classes at Connecticut College, but was unhappy with the limited number of courses offered. At the University of Maryland I had the opposite experience—a huge diversity of classes, but more than I would have liked were too large to have meaningful discussions. My personal ranking hopes to find a happy medium by looking at the numbers each college reported in their Common Data Set (CDS).

For the percentage of small class sections, USNWR reports those under 20 students. I like this number, but chose 30 instead because my experience is that good conversations still happen in classes with 20-29 students, and I would really want to go somewhere that kept the vast majority of their classes under this cap.

Not surprisingly, liberal arts colleges are, in general, best at doing this. Below are the schools where 85% or higher of their classes have under 30 students.

[IMPORTANT NOTE: Not all colleges make their Common Data Set public, so you may notice some prominent names absent from my lists. This includes Columbia, U Chicago, Johns Hopkins and Boston College, among others. If I were really planning to make a decision based on my findings, I’m not sure how I’d decide whether and how to consider these schools.]

U of Richmond

Colorado College

Scripps

Reed

Pitzer

Kenyon

Rose-Hulman

Vassar

Wellesley

Colgate

US Air Force Academy

Claremont McKenna

Pomona

Macalester

Occidental

Carleton

Mt. Holyoke

Bryn Mawr

Williams

Bates

Hamilton

Northwestern U

Haverford

Smith

Wesleyan

Swarthmore

Davidson

Barnard

Lafayette

Wake Forest U

Middlebury

99%

99

98

97

97

97

97

96

95

95

95

94

93

93

92

92

90

89

88

88

88

87

87

87

87

87

87

86

85

85

85

The schools with the largest total numbers of classes arrange themselves in order pretty much as you’d expect, with a strong correlation between school size and number of classes offered. I see no purpose in listing them here. The way I scored this criterion was to start each school off at 100 and subtract a point for every 100 fewer classes than 2500 that they had. A college with 3125 class sections would score 100. One with 1274 would score 88. One with 309 scores 78. And so on. [I chose 2500 after considerable thought about my experiences at Conn College and Maryland. I understand that many folks would use a different number if choosing to use this measure.]

And since the range of percentages of students who return for a second year (first-year retention rate) is very small for this group, I’m not going to list them here, either. This measure, by the way, is good for seeing how many students like a school enough to return, and also for seeing how well the school does at making sure students can afford to do so.