To come up with our best values for 2012-13, we started with the data on nearly 600 private institutions provided by Peterson's, then added our own reporting. Our list ranks the top 100 universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges in separate tables. The rankings measure academic quality and affordability; quality accounts for 56.25%, and cost factors account for 43.75%. Here's how the numbers break down.
SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best Values in Private Universities 2012-13
Cost and Financial Aid: 31.25%
We give the most points to schools with the lowest total cost (tuition, fees, room and board, and books), and equal points to schools that reduce the price through need-based aid (grants but not loans) and those that knock down the price through non-need-based aid. Some schools fail to cover the gap between expected family contribution and the aid they provide. We reward schools with the highest percentage of need met, and we give points up to the same maximum to schools based on the percentage of students without need who receive non-need-based aid.
Student Indebtedness: 12.5%
As college costs rise, so does average debt at graduation—to the tune of almost $27,000, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. Schools that work to keep down debt deserve extra points, and we reward them accordingly. We also recognize schools that help students avoid borrowing altogether by factoring in the percentage of students who borrow. The lower the number, the better the score.
In this category, we include admission rate (the percentage of applicants offered admission) and yield (the percentage of students who enroll out of those admitted). The first number demonstrates the selectivity of the school, and the second shows its ability to compete with other schools for accepted applicants; both demonstrate a school's academic chops. We also consider test scores (SAT or ACT) of incoming freshmen, because high achievers create an intellectual synergy that enhances the academic atmosphere.
Graduation Rates: 18.75%
Our rankings give maximum weight to the four-year graduation rate to reward colleges that help students get undergraduate degrees on time and within budget. Because some students are late bloomers, we also give points—albeit half as many—to colleges with a strong showing of students who collect their degree in five years. Most schools reported graduation rates for the class that entered in 2005.
Academic Support: 12.5%
Freshman retention rate shows the percentage of students who return for their sophomore year, an indication of how successful the college is in keeping them engaged and on track. Students per faculty—the average number of students per faculty member—measures whether the college has the personnel to fulfill its academic mission.
Marc A. Wojno, Kaitlin Pitsker and Jonny Jaldin helped compile this data.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.