Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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A Guide to US University Rankings & Accreditations

college application
Last updated on September 1, 2020

Understand what accredited colleges are and how national university rankings can help with your college decision.

An open laptop with a "us university rankings" article showing on the screen.

Does this college have a good academic reputation? How do I understand US university rankings? Does university ranking matter? As international students considering US colleges and universities, you may be asking questions like these. Additionally, US university ranking methodology may be new to you. 

So, how can you use national university rankings to help decide which universities and colleges are the best fit for you? Read on to learn all about American university rankings and accredited universities. 

1. Who decides the top university rankings?

First, a little background: while there are several organizations that rate and rank universities and colleges in the US, there are no official US university rankings. The U.S. Department of Education does not approve which colleges and universities may operate. Instead, in the US, private organizations determine the college criteria that indicates the quality of education.

The most well-known college ranking organizations are U.S. News & World Report, QS World University Rankings, Shanghai, and  Times Higher Education, and they annually provide both national university rankings and world university rankings. 

2. What goes into the university ranking methodology?

 So, what is the university ranking methodology each organization uses and how can you understand the top university rankings? Take a look: 

  • Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings focuses on teaching quality, faculty research, and citations of faculty work (30% each). They also rank the best universities in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany, and France.

  • QS World University Rankings uses a global survey of institutional professionals about academic reputation (40%) and provides rankings by location for India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico.

  • U.S. News & World Report Best Global Universities rankings use 13 criteria to assess institutions, focusing exclusively on reputational, research, and publication categories. Additionally, for its US rankings, U.S. News has many other categories including Best National Universities, Best National Liberal Arts Colleges, and Best Graduate Programs  (for a number of different academic areas).

  • The Shanghai list relies on quality of education and faculty, research output, and per capita performance. Their rankings also provide a breakdown of the top institutions by country, including China

With their world university rankings, these four top university ranking groups show how different universities measure up against the global competition. 

You may also want to take a look at US college and university rankings from Forbes, Money, and Princeton Review, but be aware that these tend to be “top 50” or “top 100” types of list and are not typically comprehensive. 

Now, let’s take a look at accreditations. 

3. What does accredited mean?

Simply put, accreditation is an indicator of the quality of an academic program at a university or college. 

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) says that “in the United States, accreditation is a major way that students, families, government officials, and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education.” 

If you are considering accredited vs. non-accredited schools, accredited colleges have passed a quality evaluation, but non-accredited institutions have not. 

4. How does a college get accredited? 

While the federal government does not regulate how educational institutions operate, CHEA has authority to accredit or approve various accrediting bodies in the US. It oversees six regional accrediting organizations and dozens of national accreditation groups that focus on online education, career and vocational training, English as a second language instruction, and various academic programs (such as business or tech). 

Typically, if a university or college has an excellent reputation in an academic field that can be accredited, it is a good bet that they have that accreditation. 

Some of the primary groups that grant accreditation are: 

Having regional accreditation is seen as the gold standard of quality in the US. (You can check out this list of all the higher education accreditation organizations if you would like to learn more.)

For international students who want to study in the US, it is a good idea to apply only to accredited colleges and universities. This will ensure that you attend a quality school for your four-year degree or graduate degree. 

Additionally, if you need to switch from one institution to another, course credits taken at unaccredited colleges would not transfer to an accredited university, so accredited colleges give you more flexibility. 

Finally, employers in your home country and post-graduate programs will likely only recognize degrees from accredited US colleges and universities, so this is an important distinction as you think about your career prospects after graduation. 

The amount of time, institutional resources, and assessment that goes into the accreditation and re-accreditation process are quite extensive, beginning up to a year before the formal review takes place. US colleges and universities depend on continued reaccreditation from their regional accrediting body, as well as any programmatic accreditors, to attract the best students, faculty, and donors. 

5. How should I use rankings and accreditations in the college application process? 

Good news: when it comes to the US institutions listed in various world university rankings, they are all accredited, top-tier colleges and universities. 

In fact, US universities have a distinct advantage with top global university rankings, both in terms of quality and quantity. Because there are nearly 5,000 accredited universities and colleges in the United States, what is a top 200 school in the US might be a top 10 school in a country with only 150 universities. 

Here is what we mean: if you told your parents you are considering only US colleges and universities ranked in the top 10%, would they be happy? Probably yes, right? But if that is the case, you would be considering 400 to 500 universities and colleges!

Then, let us go one step further. Consider American University, ranked #77 in the U.S. News Best National Universities category in the US. American is ranked by QS Top Universities in the 601-650 range; a Chinese university in that same ranking category is Sichuan University. In China, Sichuan is a top 30 university, according to the U.S. News Best Global Universities rankings. 

India’s best university, according to this same ranking, is the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. In the global rankings, IIT Bombay is listed at #513

On the other hand, Florida International University ranks #218 on the U.S. News Best National Universities rankings (in the US) and #417 in the global rankings. So, a US university ranked near the top 200 might be perceived to be better ranked than the top university in India. 

In the end, for students considering top institutions in the US (e.g., in the top 300 national universities), the quality of those colleges places them among the best in the world.

6. Are Shorelight partner universities among the top university rankings and accredited institutions?

All Shorelight partner universities are accredited, and each is within the top 250 on the U.S. News Best National Universities rankings.

Some even get special rankings: for instance, U.S. News ranks Auburn #27 for the Best First-Year Experience and University of the Pacific is #7 on the Best Ethnic Diversity list.

Additionally, Shorelight partner universities such as American University, University of Utah, and University of the Pacific have outstanding accredited programs in many fields, including accounting, business, computer science, engineering, finance, and law.  

7. Does it matter what university you go to?

As you figure out what you are searching for in a US college or university, let your decisions be guided first by the accreditations and then by the different rankings the institution holds. There will certainly be other factors that will influence your college decision—such as costs, size, location, programs, and activities—but you will be off to a great start by looking first at accreditation and rankings. 

Shorelight works only with fully accredited Tier 1 universities in the US. Speak to an enrollment counselor today >