2021 best colleges: Here are the rankings in the COVID-19 era

For its 2021 list, U.S. News & World Report considered factors directly connected to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
African American college student with face mask reading a book in the classroom.
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/ Source: TODAY

As students everywhere begin to adjust to their remote or hybrid learning models in the age of the coronavirus pandemic, high school seniors will soon start applying to college. However, for the first time, many schools aren't holding in-person tours, events that prove vital in not only seeing the school but also the students that could define the next four years.

Now, more than ever, college rankings that review a range of criteria will become key factors in the decision-making process, along with reviews and student testimonials. This year, U.S. News & World Report unveiled its list for the 2021 best college rankings among more than 1,400 colleges and universities.

“The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote,” said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer of U.S.News, in a press release. “Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them.”

In response to many of the difficulties posed to colleges and universities across the nation, this year U.S. News considered areas of concern directly impacting students and their families: student debt, social mobility and test-blind admissions policies.

The publication ranks schools across 17 different metrics; each year, emphasis on certain categories fluctuates, but this year, greater weight was placed on student outcomes, meaning graduation and retention rates, graduation rate performance, social mobility and graduate indebtedness.

U.S. News also greatly reduced weight given toward SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing and alumni donations. Also, for the first time, colleges that don’t use SAT or ACT tests to grant admission — either temporarily or indefinitely — are incorporated in the lists. Previously, these colleges were omitted.

Additionally, this year viewers with a free account will be given access to the College Admissions Calculator, allowing users to see how their GPA, SAT and ACT scores compare to students either admitted, waitlisted or rejected. Meanwhile, on schools’ profile pages, reviews written by faculty, alumni and students are available along with a Q&A section, which may prove useful in the advent of few in-person college tours. Topics like campus culture and extracurricular activities are also addressed within this section.

For the best national universities, the top five slots on U.S. News’ list remained unchanged from 2020 – even in their ordering. Once again, Princeton topped the list, followed by Harvard University, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. In 2020, there was a three-way tie for third place.

For public schools, UCLA took the top spot, followed by University of California, Berkeley; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Virginia. Each of these schools held their spots from last year, but the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill broke its tie with Georgia Institute of Technology from last year's list.

U.S. News unveiled a new list for 2021 looking at the top undergraduate computer science programs. Further breakdowns were provided for eight program disciplines, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data analytics and software engineering. MIT ranked No. 1 for its overall score, while Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University and UC Berkeley tied for second. There was a six-way tie for the fifth spot.

See below for more rankings.

Top National Universities

1. Princeton University (New Jersey)

2. Harvard University (Massachusetts)

3. Columbia University (New York)

4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (tie)

4. Yale University (Connecticut) (tie)

Top National Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Williams College (Massachusetts)

2. Amherst College (Massachusetts)

3. Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania)

4. Pomona College (California) (tie)

4. Wellesley College (Massachusetts) (tie)

Top Public Schools, National Universities

1. University of California, Los Angeles

2. University of California, Berkeley

3. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

4. University of Virginia

5. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Best Value Schools, National Universities

1. Harvard University (Massachusetts)

2. Princeton University (New Jersey)

3. Gallaudet University (Washington D.C.)

4. Yale University (Connecticut)

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Best Value Schools, National Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Williams College (Massachusetts)

2. Pomona College (California)

3. Amherst College (Massachusetts)

4. Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania)

5. Principia College (Illinois)

Top Historically Black Colleges and Universities

1. Spelman College (Georgia)

2. Howard University (Washington D.C.)

3. Xavier University of Louisiana

4. Tuskegee University (Alabama)

5. Hampton University (Virginia)

Top Performers on Social Mobility, National Universities

1. University of California, Riverside

2. University of California, Irvine

3. Rutgers University - Newark (New Jersey)

4. University of California, Santa Cruz

5. University of California, Merced

Top Performers on Social Mobility, National Liberal Arts Colleges

1. College of Idaho

2. Lake Forest College (Illinois)

3. Thomas Aquinas College (California)

4. Spelman College (Georgia)

5. University of Puerto Rico - Cayey

Top Undergraduate Computer Science Programs

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2. Carnegie Mellon University (Pennsylvania) (tie)

2. Stanford University (California) (tie)

2. University of California, Berkeley (tie)

CLARIFICATION (Sept. 14, 2020, 12:14 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill replaced Georgia Institute of Technology for the fifth spot on the list of best public schools on a national level. UNC-Chapel Hill tied with Georgia Tech for fifth place last year.