Choosing which criteria are most important to you in a college is important, but if you’re going to create a ranking for yourself it can be challenging to figure out where to get the data you need. Below are some suggestions for sources of data and for criteria you might use. Only you can decide whether to use them and how to weight them. Hopefully, someday soon someone will be gathering all of this data in one place and giving you the opportunity to use and weight it as you wish. Whoever does this will be making quite a bit more profit than those who currently try to convince us that their choice of criteria and weights is what every single person on the planet should care about.

US News and World Report

The thing USNWR is most useful for is having tons of data all gathered in one place. Much of their data can be found in each individual college’s Common Data Set (for those that make them public), but it’s very useful to have all the numbers in one place so you don’t have to go to each CDS separately for the information you want. Almost all of the schools you’ll be interested in are included, including some that don’t make their Common Data Sets public. Here are the criteria I think are the most useful:

Average first-year student retention rate–As mentioned earlier, this measures the percentage of students who come back for a second year at the same college, and it’s a good gauge of how much students like their school and of how well the school does at making sure the students can afford to return. Also, it’s nice to know what percentage of the friends you make freshman year are likely to return sophomore year; this can impact your experience.

6-year graduation rate–this measure basically the same thing as first-year retention, but looks at a 6-year range to see who’s completed their degree at the same college they started at within that time span. I’d probably choose to use one or the other, but not both. [Interesting side note: both Princeton and Harvard’s numbers are the same for both measures, and I believe they’re the only ones. This implies that all (or almost all) students at these two colleges who come back for sophomore year will stay through graduation. That’s impressive!]

% of classes under 20–Class size is perhaps the single measurable factor that impacts a student’s learning the most. Smaller class sizes allow meaningful discussion and usually mean easier access to professors outside the classroom if you need help. You’re also less likely to get distracted by your phone or laptop if you know everyone can see what you’re doing–yes, that’s a good thing!

As mentioned earlier, I’m okay with class sizes up to 30 and was willing to put in the time to gather that data from each CDS, but if you have less time or feel strongly that 20 should be your cutoff, then you can just use the numbers reported in USNWR and save yourself a lot of effort.

% of classes of 50 or more–Another way of looking at class size that seems less useful to me, but you might want to use it in addition to the % under 20.

Princeton Review

The best thing about this resource is that they get much of their information straight from the students, who are in the best position to evaluate the quality of the ‘product’ they’re using. The quotes they gather give a real feel for the personality of the school, and the ratings they gather provide a great supplement to the hard data from USNWR. Unfortunately, you’ll have to visit each college’s info pages to gather data, but it seems well worth the time to me. This resource is limited in that it covers fewer than 400 colleges, but their list includes almost every college students who care the most about rankings are likely to have interest in.

Quality of life rating–According to Princeton Review, this measures “the students’ assessment of their overall happiness; the beauty, safety and location of the campus; comfort of dorms; quality of food; ease of getting around campus and dealing with administrators; friendliness of fellow students; and the interaction of different student types on campus and within the greater community.” What a wonderful bit of information to have!

Green rating–This data comes from the colleges, not the students, and measures “whether students have a campus quality of life that is both healthy and sustainable; how well a school is preparing students not only for employment in the green energy economy of the 21st century, but also for citizenship in a world now defined by environmental challenges; and how environmentally responsible a school’s policies are.” I’m guessing there are many students for whom this might be an important factor in decision-making.

Profs interesting rating–where else can you hear straight from the horse’s mouth whether the instructors at any given college are any good at teaching? Student engagement is incredibly important to learning, and this measure is very useful in measuring that factor.

% students living on campus–this can vary significantly and can have a big impact on the social life of a college. If having your friends close by matters, you might prefer a college where most live on campus all four years. If the idea of moving off campus after a year or two appeals to you, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Examples of how different the numbers can be include Franklin and Marshall with 99%, Penn with 55%, and Florida State with 20%.

Common Data Sets

For colleges that make their Common Data Set (CDS) public, they are a veritable smorgasbord of useful information. All of the data points listed under the USNWR heading are included, along with much, much more. Even if you decide not to create your own ranking, be sure to consult the CDS for each college that winds up on your final list so you can note the differences among your favorites. There are many items that wouldn’t be super useful for ranking that might be very useful in making a decision.

The CDS is broken down into parts A-K, and I’m including the section and subsection in my listings below.

B1–includes data regarding the breakdown of enrollment at the college. You’re less likely to use this section for ranking, but if you care about size of the school, ratio of men to women, or ratio of undergrads to grad students, it could be useful.

B2–breaks down the student body by race, and also gives the number of international students. Interesting to look at even if you decide not to use it.

B22–gives the percentage of freshmen who returned for a second year. As mentioned in my ranking, this is a good measure of how happy students are with the school, as well as how good a job the school is doing at making sure students want to and can afford to return.

C9–gives a breakdown of the number of incoming freshmen who scored within given ranges on the SAT or ACT. Since the pandemic has led so many colleges to discontinue requiring test scores for admission, this measure has become inflated and ambiguous, and therefore less useful. If you care about this a lot, you could use the 2019-20 CDS (if you can find it), which is the last year that wasn’t affected by Covid. As you saw in my ranking, though, my recommendation would be to use this just to provide a range of schools that match up well with your scores rather than including it as a criterion in your ranking.

[Important note: Don’t forget to look at the percentiles rather than the actual scores so you don’t make any mistaken assumptions about how far the average scores for any given college are from your scores. These can be found by doing a search for ‘SAT percentiles’ or ‘ACT percentiles’ along with the year you want them for. Both organizations publish this every year.]

C10–provides the percentages of students within given ranges of high school GPA. I wasn’t going to include this, but then I thought it might be helpful for you to know why I don’t think it’s a good measure. It’s because most high schools don’t provide rank any more, so all you’re seeing with this measure is those that do. It doesn’t give a full picture.

F1–tells you what percentage of students are from the state the college is in vs. out-of-state. Some colleges, especially state schools, can have very low percentages of students from other states, which might be considered undesirable both socially and in terms of diversity of opinion.

This section is also another place to get the data on what percentage of students live on campus, as mentioned in the Princeton Preview section.

And it mentions the numbers of students who join fraternities and sororities. There are very few places these days where this number is high enough to be likely to deter you from wanting to attend, but if you like the idea of having this option, it will tell you if it exists. It’s not likely to be a ranking factor, but could help rule in or rule out some schools.

H2–Line I of this graph tells you what percentage of financial need (as determined by the FAFSA and the school) is met for students. If you’re going to be applying for financial aid, this is very useful to know and would be easy to include in a ranking. A handful of colleges are able to meet all of your need, but for the rest it can vary widely. One problem with this criterion is that it doesn’t indicate what types of aid are offered, so you won’t know if it’s gift aid or loans or work-study or some combination of all three. A few of the wealthier colleges are able to say none of their graduates will have any debt, but almost all will only be able to offer gift aid as part of the package, but not all.

I1–This is where I got the data regarding breakdown of faculty by gender and the percentage who are members of a minority. It also includes the number who are nonresident aliens, as well as the number who are full-time vs. part-time, which is another measure I considered using in my personal ranking.

I3–And this is where I got the numbers regarding class sizes, one of the most useful statistics available, in my opinion. It gives the numbers of classes of varying sizes, ranging from under 10 to 100+.

Section J breaks down the number of students majoring in each discipline. This isn’t critical to my decision-making, but I could see using it to rule in or out colleges that are heavily focused on just a handful of majors.

College websites

Course catalog–I used the total number of classes offered at each college for my personal ranking, but if you’ve got the time it would be even better to do a deep dive into each college’s course catalog to see how many classes there are (especially in your major, if you know what it will likely be) about which you’re truly excited. If you don’t have time to do this at the beginning of your search, keep it in mind for later after you’ve narrowed it down to a manageable number.

Net price calculator–Cost is an obviously important factor in decision-making for most college applicants. Comparing the total cost of one college to another might be a good factor to include in your personalized ranking formula, but it can be tricky to figure out what the bottom line will be. Beginning in 2011, all colleges were required to provide what’s called a “net price calculator”, which gives you the bottom line cost for their school based on your financial circumstances. [Note: I’d be wary of any college that doesn’t offer this opportunity.] While this has its limitations, it’s more accurate than using the total costs without taking your finances into account. Here are a couple of good articles to read before using this in your ranking.

From US News:

And from Forbes:

Campus photos–You need to actually see the campus in person, of course, to fully understand its beauty, how well it’s laid out, how easy it is to navigate, etc. But since that’s not practical for most, taking a look at photos online can help you figure out on which campuses you’ll be happiest. Since each college only want to show its best side, you’ll want to seek out other sources of photos, too, of which there are many.

Current research–Colleges are usually eager to share what research their professors are conducting, and if this is an important feature to you in making a decision, it’s worth the time to look at the bios of each individual professor in whatever majors might interest you to see what they’re currently working on. If you’re really ambitious, contact those that interest you the most to see how many undergrads are on their team. Assign scores based on how likely it seems that you’ll be able to secure a position working on a project that would have strong interest for you.

Opportunities for semester/year in another location–These days, pretty much every college has an extensive collection of offerings for opportunities to study either abroad or elsewhere in the US. You could easily assign a value to this if you have strong opinions about what types of experiences interest you the most.

[Stay tuned…I’ll add more as I get time.]