First-year students are just getting settled on campus, and a new crop of high school seniors is starting to think about college applications.
You know what that means. It’s college rankings season, when a slew of best-this and best-that lists arrive to amp up the stress level of students and parents in search of that dream school.
The granddaddy of the rankings game, U.S. News & World Report, unveils its “2016 Best Colleges,” on Wednesday – the 31st year of the magazine’s analysis.
There isn’t just one list, though. The edition’s “Best National Universities” is the most-watched, but there are various sub-lists that rank universities and colleges according to mission, regional focus and even specific majors such as business and engineering. Some lists claim to size up best buys. Others measure best online degree programs or best colleges for veterans.
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Rankings have been criticized for stoking a relentless – and perhaps unhealthy – competition among the nation’s 1,600 universities. That horse-race mentality can drive policy decisions in a way that serves the rankings, not the best interests of students, critics say.
College leaders, while closely watching the rankings, often downplay their significance. Even the U.S. News editors caution that rankings are merely a starting point for a student’s college search.
“The host of intangibles that make up the college experience can’t be measured by a series of data points,” write Robert J. Morse and Eric Brooks.
U.S. News’ methodology includes quantitative measures on such indicators as graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving. Then there are qualitative measures – less scientific – from surveys of academic peers and high school guidance counselors.
Counselors are quick to advise that what’s most important in choosing a college is fit, or how a particular school matches up with a student’s academic interests, financial means, personality and comfort level. You know, the thing that happens when a prospective student visits a campus and says, “This is it.”
As usual, many North Carolina colleges and universities make an appearance on the U.S. News list.
“Being ranked as a top five national public university by U.S. News and World Report for 15 consecutive years is a milestone that underscores the ongoing commitment to excellence shared by our students, faculty and staff,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement Tuesday.
Here’s a rundown of N.C. schools:
Best national universities
This is the list that ranks the major institutions in the United States, 280 universities that offer a wide range of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees. Duke University, at 8th, remains in the Top 10 across the land, while Wake Forest University (27th) and UNC-Chapel Hill (30th) make strong showings. UNC is fifth among public universities. N.C. State University is 89th among all U.S. national universities. UNC Greensboro (187th), East Carolina and UNC Charlotte (tied for 194th) make it into the Top 200.
Best national liberal arts colleges
This list has top picks among 245 liberal arts colleges, and many schools in New England and the Northeast figure prominently. Davidson College, near Charlotte, ranks ninth. Salem College (136th), UNC Asheville (148th), Guilford College (158th) and Warren Wilson College (164th) also make the list. UNCA is eighth among public liberal arts colleges.
Best regional universities (South)
These schools have undergraduate and master’s programs, but few doctoral offerings. Elon University is first in the South. Also ranked: Appalachian State (10th), UNC Wilmington (16th), Queens University of Charlotte (20th), Campbell University (24th), Western Carolina University (32nd), Wingate University (37th), Gardner-Webb University (41st), N.C. Central University (65th), Pfeiffer University (76th), Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State universities (tied for 84th), Montreat College and UNC Pembroke (tied for 93rd).
Best regional colleges (South)
This looks at schools that focus almost entirely on undergraduate programs. High Point University is first in the South. Also ranked: Meredith College (5th), Lenoir-Rhyne University (13th), Catawba College (15th), Barton College (22nd), Elizabeth City State University (30th), Mars Hill University (36th), Methodist University (38th), Belmont Abbey College (39th), University of Mount Olive (51st), Lees-McRae College (60th) and N.C. Wesleyan College (63rd).
Best historically black colleges
Ranked: N.C. A&T State University (9th), N.C. Central University (12th), Bennett College (15th), Johnson C. Smith University (16th), Elizabeth City State University (18th), Fayetteville State University (25th), Winston-Salem State University (30th), St. Augustine’s University (48th).
Believe it or not, Duke is high on this list, despite its price of $64,000 for tuition, fees, room and board. It was 7th when taking into account financial aid awards. UNC is 13th, Wake Forest is 30th and NCSU is 50th. Davidson is 16th among liberal arts colleges. Wingate, Appalachian State, Meredith and Lenoir-Rhyne are good deals on the regional scene.
Duke University is 18th among schools with doctoral degrees in engineering. NCSU is 31st.
UNC is 7th among those with undergraduate business programs. Wake Forest (34th), NCSU (93rd), UNC Charlotte (114th), Elon and UNCG (tied for 156th) are also on the list.
Livingstone College and Chowan University are mentioned as Southern colleges with high debt levels among graduates.
UNC and NCSU are listed among the national universities with the least debt among graduates.
Best colleges for veterans
UNC (24th) among national schools; Davidson (8th) among liberal arts schools. Regionally, Elon (1st), UNCW (14th), Queens (18th), Campbell (20th), Western Carolina (27th), Gardner-Webb (32nd).