Interpreting Our Undergraduate Rankings of Best Colleges and Universities

Our “Best” Rankings for Undergraduates

In January 2021, AcademicInfluence.com released an article titled ”50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021.” This article attempts to identify the very best schools for undergraduates in the U.S. At the same time that this article was released, AcademicInfluence.com also released a series of other articles aimed at undergraduates. These articles provided rankings of the 50 best colleges and universities across a variety of categories:

With each of these articles, the only schools up for consideration were those answering to the category in question (in other words, the categories highlighted above in boldface). Thus, the best liberal arts colleges ranking focused entirely on liberal arts colleges, selecting and ordering those that our ranking method determined to be the best schools in that category. Accordingly, schools outside this category would not interfere with the ranking. Thus research universities would be excluded entirely from consideration in the ranking of liberal arts colleges.

It follows that the highest distinction in such rankings would belong to schools that appear in a ranking with no category restrictions. Such a ranking, as noted at the start of this white paper, exists and is simply titled

  • “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021”

Our Benchmark Ranking for Undergraduates

The article “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021,” by having no category restriction, therefore constitutes the benchmark among all such ranking articles directed at undergrduates. The schools appearing in “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021″ are thus the ones to beat, and, other things being equal, they beat out the comparably ranked schools in the other articles in our series.

Obviously, all the articles listed in the previous section will need to be consistent in their rankings. So, for example, if the very best college and/or university of 2021, without a category restriction, is also a small college and/or university (which it happens to be), then it will need to appear at the very top of the list in the more restricted article titled “50 Best Small Colleges and Universities of 2021.”

And indeed, all the rankings listed above turn out to be consistent in this way. AcademicInfluence.com ensures consistency by generating its rankings from a machine-learning algorithm that keeps track of all the categories and criteria by which schools may differ, making sure all the rankings match up as they should.

To confirm that consistency is indeed preserved, one need but punch in the right parameters in AcademicInfluence.com’s Custom College Ranking tool, which generates bespoke rankings at the specification of users. It is this tool that in fact generated all the rankings in the articles above.

Our article “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” therefore constitutes the benchmark among our ranking articles for identifying the best colleges and universities for undergraduates, regardless of category restrictions. Let’s therefore examine this benchmark article more closely, elucidating it and thereby the other articles we’ve published in that vein.

What Makes This Ranking Different: Concentrated Influence

Merely eyeballing our article “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” reveals that this ranking is not quite like any other ranking out there on the Web. That’s because this ranking uses our concentrated influence metric, which adjusts influence by school size, so that smaller schools with proportionately as many or more influential faculty and alums will rank as high as, or even higher than, larger schools with more influence in absolute terms.

Concentrated influence allows smaller schools to punch far above their weight class, competing with much larger schools by eliminating the size advantage of larger schools. Other things being equal, larger schools, simply because of their size advantage, will tend to have more influential faculty and alums than smaller schools. By factoring out a school’s size advantage, our article “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” includes a robust mix of smaller as well as larger schools.

Concentrated influence reveals whether schools, at the undergraduate level, are doing more with less. In accomplishing this feat, concentrated influence divides overall influence by undergraduate student body size. As a consequence, some smaller schools really get a chance to shine. We see this in the school that tops out this ranking, namely, Caltech. Normally, in a ranking of the best colleges and universities for undergraduates, schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford dominate.

But precisely because Caltech is so small (fewer than 1,000 undergrads compared to Harvard’s 9,000 undergrads) and yet so disproportionately influential (it helps that Caltech’s student to faculty ratio is an unmatched 3:1 – no other school keeps the ratio that low), it beats out even Harvard, which in absolute terms is far more influential.

To see that Harvard and several other large top-tier schools are indeed more influential in absolute terms than Caltech, compare our article ”50 Best Graduate Schools of 2021,” which ranks American universities simply in terms of influence (not concentrated influence). Harvard (rightly) ranks at the very top and Caltech drops down to a respectable but hardly dominating number 19 spot.

Similarities and Differences with Other Rankings

Many of the big top-tier schools that one would expect to see in a ranking titled “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” appear on this list, as they should. Thus we see many of the usual suspects such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, etc.

The ordering of schools, however, may differ from what one would normally expect. Harvard, because of its huge influence in absolute terms, comes right after Caltech in the number two spot. But then come MIT, Stanford, and University of Chicago ahead of Princeton, Columbia, and Yale. Duke then weighs in at the number 10 spot.

But right after Duke, other smaller schools start to get competitive. Swarthmore, Amherst, and Sarah Lawrence (each with student bodies under 2,000) take spots 11, 13, and 17, respectively, mixing it up with Northwestern, Rice, and Carnegie Mellon. The small size of these three colleges, by proportionately increasing their concentrated influence, makes them competitive with these much larger and more influential universities (i.e., given the size and influence of the latter universities when considered in absolute terms).

Although retaining many of the usual suspects, the ranking in “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” also puts some of them in unfamiliar spots. Some very large schools, such as UC Berkeley and NYU, have grown accustomed to ranking with the top Ivies, regularly appearing among the top ten. Yet because UC Berkeley and NYU are so large, with around 30,000 undergraduates each, and because concentrated influence divides influence by size of undergraduate student body, these schools drop considerably in our ranking, with UC Berkeley down to the 23 spot and NYU down to the 37 spot.

Our ranking of the “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” provides a rich and varied list of schools, and puts them in an order that invites creative reflection, especially by high school students intent on going to a top-flight college or university. How should such students, as well as their parents, regard this ranking (and by implication the others in our series)? Are we, for instance, advocating that students blithely enroll in the highest ranked school on this list to which they get accepted?

No. With concentrated influence as the criterion for academic excellence, our article “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” provides an accurate and insightful ranking of the best undergraduate institutions in the U.S., taken in a general or overall sense. But “best” in some general or overall sense does not necessarily mean “best for you.”

“Best Overall” Versus “Best for You”

Many of the schools on this list are full-fledged research universities with a full range of majors and areas of study. Whatever your interests and however they may change over the course of your undergraduate years, these schools will be a safe bet.

Conversely, some of the smaller schools on this list will have more limited selections of what you can study. Caltech, for instance, is unrivalled in the education that it offers to undergraduates in STEM subjects. Indeed, because of its huge concentrated influence in STEM subjects, it dominates the entire ranking of “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021.”

But if your interest is literature, music, or art, then you will not want to attend Caltech. A larger school like Northwestern University known for these subjects (and ranked number 12 in this ranking) would be much better. But so would smaller liberal arts colleges that appear on this list, such as Sarah Lawrence (ranked number 17 in this ranking).

“Best overall” is not necessarily “best for you.” Students need to ask themselves what they are looking for in an undergraduate education. Perhaps a student has taken a ton of Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school and wants to get right into research in their undergraduate days. In that case, they’ll want to enroll at a top flight research university (and the top ones do appear on this list of the “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021”).

But what if a student is less interested in going deep than in going broad, wanting exposure to an array of different subject areas, as is common in a liberal arts education? This list contains liberal arts schools answering to that preference as well.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, our ranking of “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” (and the others in this series) needs to be interpreted as an aid for further reflection about what may be the best school for a given student. This ranking must not be interpreted reflexively, as in “I’ll enroll in the highest ranked school on this list that I get into.” That would be foolish.

Other things being equal, we think the order of schools on this list accurately represents what are the best schools overall for undergraduates in the U.S. (and likewise for the lists restricted by category). But other things are never equal: you, the individual student, are in the equation, and you need to decide what school is best for you.

That’s why at AcademicInfluence.com, we enable you to customize and personalize your own rankings based on the factors that matter most in your search for the school that is best for you (see especially our Custom College Rankings tool). In consequence, think of “50 Best Colleges and Universities of 2021” and its related rankings not as a destination but as a point of departure as you search for the undergraduate school that is best for you.