45% COST FACTORS | 55% QUALITY FACTORS
To come up with our best values for 2012–13, we start with data on nearly 600 public four-year schools provided by Peterson's, then add our own reporting. We narrow the list to about 130 schools, based on measures of academic quality. We then rank each school based on cost and financial aid. Quality accounts for 55%, and cost accounts for 45%.
Cost and Financial Aid: 35%
To evaluate costs, we look at tuition, fees, room and board, and books. We give the most points to schools with the lowest in-state total cost and equal points to schools that reduce the price through grants (shown as cost after need-based aid) and those that reduce the price through non-need-based aid. 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. We calculate out-of-state cost separately and use the same criteria to assign an out-of-state rank.
Student Indebtedness: 10%
Schools that keep down average debt at graduation deserve extra points, and we reward them accordingly. We also factor 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. We also consider the percentage of incoming freshmen who are high scorers on SAT or ACT, because high achievers enhance 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. We also give points—albeit half as many—to colleges with a strong showing of students who collect their degrees in six years.
Academic Support: 13.75%
Freshman retention rate is the percentage of students who return for their sophomore year, an indication of how successful the college is in keeping them on track. Students per faculty measures whether the college has the personnel to fulfill its academic mission.
Our rankings focus on traditional four-year schools with broad-based curricula. Schools that offer great value but focus on special or narrow academic programs, such as the military service academies, are excluded. Cornell University, best known as a member of the Ivy League, is another exception. Four of Cornell's colleges are part of the privately endowed university, which we consider a private institution. But three of Cornell’s undergraduate colleges are land-grant state schools that cost much less—about $27,000 a year for tuition and fees in-state.
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.