Getting into college is difficult on its own, but sometimes, choosing the best place for you is even harder. There’s so much pressure to make the right decision because it can determine your education, social circle, eventual career, and ultimately, the kind of adult you become.

And since we live in an era of rising tuition costs and mounting student debt—thanks to a job market with limited spots for our best and brightest—it’s important to pick the college that gives you the best shot at achieving the American Dream. So forget where your girlfriend or boyfriend is going. Forget that your dad wants you to carry on the family tradition at so-and-so university. You have to attend the school that is right for you, and you alone. 

While it’s easy to get lost in the thousands of accredited American colleges, U.S. News & World Report and the U.S. Department of Education attempt to help you by evaluating and ranking all the major colleges and universities. The lists they create can get a bit overwhelming and may seem arbitrary, so Complex got the low-down on the factors that go into determining the top schools, like allocation of money, class size, and alumni involvement.  

Already in college? Check out the lists to see where your school is ranked, and read on to find out why and how it received that ranking. Not only is it fun to see how your school stacks up against others, but you'll notice areas that could be improved. Who knows, maybe you're the person that helps affect change.

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Image via U.S. News

 U.S. News & World Report

The U.S. News & World Report is the reliable, gold standard as it relates to ranking and evaluating institutions of higher learning. It’s updated and published on an annual basis, and it’s what most college advisors and guidance counselors have sworn by for more than 30 years.

But “old” does not mean “out of touch.” One of the advantages of being around for a while is seeing the evolution of standards and practices over time. For example, U.S. News heavily factored “input measures of quality” into its rankings. Researchers from the organization might ask a school how well incoming freshmen did on their SATs or what their high school grades were like.

Over time, U.S. News realized that this data was not useful on its own. What did the input matter if the output was terrible? Today, U.S. News focuses more on the output, or Outcome. It weighs factors like graduation rates and freshman retention rates to determine rankings.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before any evaluating occurs, U.S. News places all schools into four distinct categories: national universities, national liberal arts colleges, regional universities, and regional colleges. A national university, for example, is a school that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees and emphasizes faculty research. Meanwhile, a liberal arts college is usually smaller and more undergrad-centric.

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Image via Kevin Wong

Then, each school is graded in six major areas against other schools in its category. The first area is the aforementioned outcomes, which accounts for 30 percent of the overall grade. The second area is faculty resources, which accounts for 20 percent of the overall grade. Does the school employ full-time professors? Are they paid and compensated well for their time? Will you be attending seminar classes with 20 students, or fighting for a chair in a sea of 200 students? If being treated like a person instead of a number would impact the quality of your education, then paying attention to these factors is crucial.

“Research has shown that smaller classes foster a productive and positive learning environment,” said Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, in a recent press release. “With this new index measure, U.S. News takes fuller advantage of the data schools provide, while still rewarding schools that make an effort to better serve their students with smaller classes.”

The third area is financial resources, which accounts for 10 percent of the overall score. Colleges and universities pull in billions of dollars every year. Where, exactly, does all that money go? A high-scoring college will funnel that money back to the students and pay for their instruction, research, and services.

The fourth area is expert opinion, which accounts for 22.5 percent of the overall score. U.S. News consults college presidents, provosts, high school counselors, and admission deans, and asks them to rank and evaluate the schools and universities in their peer groups. Out of all the graded areas, "expert opinion" probably breeds the most controversy and potential for bias. Although U.S. News does its best to minimize human error, that variability is always there, as it is in any self-reported data set.

The fifth area is student excellencewhich accounts for 12.5 percent of the overall grade. This is the formerly larger “input” area, which evaluates high school performance of incoming freshmen. What was their average SAT score? What was their average class rank?

The sixth and final area is alumni giving, which accounts for the remaining five percent of the overall grade. What percentage of the university’s graduates gives back to its alma mater? Of course, not every institution wants to share how much they receive in alumni gifts. Most famously, Sarah Lawrence declined to participate in the expert opinion area of the ranking in 2007.

But it’s important to remember that rank is not the only determining factor in what makes a college great. Rather, a student must look at a school’s unique traits, reflect on personal likes and dislikes, and conclude where he or she will be happiest. The ranking is only the beginning of a lengthier research process.

“I encourage parents and students to use the wealth of data and information in 'Best Colleges' to identify schools that suit their specific needs,” said Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News, in a recent press release. “In addition to considering factors like location and cost, families should pay close attention to graduation and retention rates. These are important indicators of how well a school supports its students both academically and financially. Getting into a good school means nothing if you cannot graduate.”

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Image via College Scorecard

The College Scorecard

Ever since President Barack Obama announced his ambitious plan to make college more affordable in 2013, it’s undergone several modifications. Originally, the initiative called for colleges to be evaluated via a ratings system, which would then tie into federal financial aid. A student attending a highly rated college, for example, might receive a larger grant than a student who is not.

Instead, what we have today is the College Scorecard—a more dispassionate collection of data that is both searchable and sortable. As a general rule of thumb, the U.S. Department of Education resists calling this scorecard a “ranking” (though one could certainly, with some effort, extrapolate rankings in specific areas). The data is not laid out in a descending list. Rather, one must enter personal preferences and parameters on the official site in order to pull up a customized list of schools. It’s less about how the colleges are ranked, and more about how you want to rank them. What academic program are you interested in? How far are you willing to travel from home? Are you interested in a big campus or small campus?

While U.S. News offers comparable search functions on its website, you have to pay an annual fee to access them. The College Scorecard’s search functions, by contrast, are free.

“The status quo serves some colleges and the companies that rank them just fine,” Obama said during a Weekly Address last year. “But it doesn’t serve our students well, and that doesn’t serve any of us well. There are colleges dedicated to helping students of all backgrounds learn without saddling them with debt. We should hold everybody to that standard. Our economic future depends on it.” 

And this is what distinguishes the College Scorecard from U.S. News. The College Scorecard places a greater emphasis on the livelihood of college alumni after they graduate. For example, you can search for colleges based on the percentage of students who successfully pay down their tuition debts.

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Image via College Scorecard

Scroll further down a school’s profile, and you’ll find calculated earnings for graduates of each college. What is the average salary for a college grad? What percentage of college graduates earn more money than a student who has only received a high school diploma? If you dissect the data even more narrowly, you can see how much recent graduates earn versus people who’ve been out of school and working for a decade. 

Again, it’s all part of the outcomes-based philosophy toward evaluating schools; of examining what the college puts out rather than what it takes in. A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told Complex that they’re always improving the College Scorecard. One of the department’s current priorities is to give students the option to compare the output of specific academic programs at different schools. Hypothetically, does the English literature program at the University of Virginia have a higher earning potential than the English literature program at Columbia University? The DOE spokesperson also mentioned the goal of improving the site’s mechanics, allowing students to compare two schools side-by-side rather than reading each school profile individually.

So now, with the new breadth of knowledge you possess, log on to either U.S. News & World Report or College Scorecard, and start reading up. Once you have your list of dream colleges, tour and interview if you can. Again, it’s important to remember that data and rankings will only take you so far in the process. Visiting schools allows you to experience firsthand what it’s like to be on campus, breathe the fresh air, study in the classrooms, and chill on the quad. Who knows, you may gain a newfound appreciation for small schools or learn that you love the feel of big campuses.

If you’re attending a college or university whose rankings aren’t particularly favorable in some categories, you’re in a unique position. You can be the catalyst for change from within. And hey, you might just be the one that helps boost those scores.