Analysis & Comment

Opinion | How ‘Build Your Own College Rankings’ Was Built

Times Opinion has built a tool that we hope will help students, parents and other readers think anew about the high-stress process of choosing the right college or university — and whether one “right” school ever really exists. This tool allows you to design your own college rankings: You tell us what matters to you and we’ll give you a list of schools that best matches your priorities.

In doing so, our intent is to place value and emphasis on your opinions about college and show the range of schools that could meet your individual needs and goals. Such a personalized tool offers a contrast to many current college ranking lists, which forever favor the same Ivies and other big-name schools, as if, say, Princeton could be considered the No. 1 university for every student.

For some students and families, getting into a widely known top-10 campus can start to feel all-or-nothing. Play around with our tool and explore the data on each college in your ranking, and you’ll see how actual little difference there is between many schools — and how, far from one school being the only “right” one, there are plenty of choices that could make you happy.

To be clear, using the tool is meant as a step in the college search. No amount of data can give you a complete picture of what a college is all about. You’ll have to talk to people, explore the school’s offerings, make a visit if you can. But with hundreds of colleges to sort through, where does one begin? Our goal is to give you some new help in that process.

Here is some information about our data and methodology:

Where the data came from

The tool uses data from three sources: the U.S. Department of Education via the National Center for Education Statistics and the College Scorecard, and Opportunity Insights. The data is from the Department of Education unless noted otherwise.

We have nearly 900 four-year U.S. colleges and universities in our database, all of them nonprofit institutions with at least 500 students.

We included only colleges and universities where more than 50 percent of students graduated within eight years; as a result, many four-year colleges will not show up in your rankings list if they have low graduation rates. Filtering for schools that graduate more than half their students removes hundreds of schools from our sample, some of them prominent institutions in their communities. But we believe this is an important criterion for inclusion, given how serious a problem the college dropout rate is in America.

We also included only schools that have data for at least three of the 10 measures that we used to weight our rankings. And we included schools where more than 75 percent of the students were attending full-time. We excluded military colleges, maritime colleges, federal service academies and online universities.

Earnings are based on the median income of people who attended the school 10 years ago and who received federal aid. These figures are from 2020.

Roughly speaking, there are two prices for college: the price that schools advertise (the sticker price) and the price that students who receive scholarships and financial aid actually end up paying after those grants and aid are factored in (the net price).

For students who know that their family probably won’t be offered much aid, using the sticker price may yield more results in line with their priorities. But if they expect to receive some funding from the state government, the federal government or the institution, then the net price should be a better metric. In instances where the institution offers both in-state and out-of-state prices, the tool uses the in-state price when calculating the rankings. In the rare instances where a school doesn’t report on-campus housing prices, we report the sticker price for a student living off-campus. The sticker price is from the 2021-22 academic school year and the net price is from 2019-20, before the pandemic and remote instruction had a strong effect on the reported cost of room and board.

The economic mobility measure is the result of a 2017 analysis from Opportunity Insights that tried to determine which schools in America were most successful at helping students from low-income families reach the upper classes. The specific income mobility measure we used was the probability that a student from a family in the bottom 40 percent of household income would eventually reach the top 40 percent.

Some schools share a systemwide identifier (the University of Massachusetts, for example), so in these cases, the mobility figures will be an average for the entire group of colleges.

The economic diversity score uses the same data to look at the household income of the students attending each college. We constructed an index based on the proportion of the student body who come from each quintile of household income. Schools with a more even distribution of students from all income levels will score higher.

The academic profile score is an even mix of standardized test scores (SAT and ACT), graduation rates and student-faculty ratio. Each measure is standardized and averaged to create one composite score. In instances where one of the three academic measures is missing, the composite score will be an average of the other two measures.

Racial diversity is an index based on the racial composition of the undergraduate population as reported to the Department of Education and reflects the racial composition of the school during the 2021-22 academic school year.

The campus safety, party scene and athletics scores are based on data and self-reported student surveys compiled and provided by

Our definition of S.T.E.M. includes computer science, mathematics, medicine, psychology, physical science, social science and engineering.

Our definition of the humanities includes English, history, journalism, languages, law, literature, philosophy, religious studies and theology.

How the rankings are calculated

The data behind each slider is normalized and then weighted according to the relative value provided by the reader. Then we add up all the weighted scores for each school and rank according to the highest total. You can view the full calculation for the score of any college at the bottom of the school’s listing.

Within a school’s listed data, percentages may not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

No rankings created by readers are stored or otherwise recorded by The New York Times. Any data you enter stays in your web browser.

Some schools haven’t published certain data (for instance, earnings aren’t available for Penn State), which may result in a lower than expected ranking, particularly if the reader weights that data very heavily.

Of course, it is always possible for errors to find their way into an analysis of over 900 American colleges. If you think you’ve found one, please send an email to [email protected] to let us know.

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