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From the Editor

Take a Tour of the 300 Best Values in U.S. Colleges

Choosing the right school is as much an art as a science.

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As you or members of your family gear up to visit colleges with your kids or grandkids this spring, make your first stop Kiplinger’s 2017 rankings of the top 300 college values. They’ll help you narrow your search and potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars.

SLIDE SHOW: See the 10 Best College Values of 2017

We have been ranking the best values in public universities, private universities and liberal arts colleges for nearly 20 years. We were the first to assess schools based on a combination of academic quality and affordability, and after two decades we have this down to a science—insofar as choosing a college can be a science. “We work with schools to check and double-check the numbers,” says staff writer Kaitlin Pitsker, who oversees our rankings. “And we go through the list with a fine-tooth comb to find anomalies.”

This attention to detail produces a lot of consistency—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains its perennial top spot on our list of public colleges—but it also allows for surprises. This year, for example, tiny Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic school with about 400 students in Santa Paula, Calif., and a curriculum that focuses on the great books of Western civilization, vaulted 15 places to break into the top 10 on our combined list. Factors that propelled its rise were its low sticker price—at $32,500, it’s about half that of many of the private schools on our list—along with its generous financial aid and low average debt at graduation. Thomas Aquinas also rolls the cost of books into tuition, which has been frozen for a number of years.

As the cost of college has risen, a growing number of news outlets and websites have introduced their own rankings, many of which focus on specific factors, such as curriculum, student involvement, diversity and “outcomes”—often represented by graduates’ salaries. To address this, we’ve added a separate column that includes a salary number from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. The feds use tax records to determine the median earnings of workers who received financial aid and who started at a particular college 10 years earlier (whether or not they graduated).

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But those limitations affect how reliable the salary number is. Plus, it doesn’t take into account the majors or fields that students pursued, nor does it measure earnings later in life. Liberal arts grads sometimes fall short on salary measures as they begin their careers, but research shows that they often gain ground—and even pull ahead—as their careers progress. So we offer the salary information as a yardstick, but we don’t include it in our methodology.

How to choose. Even when numbers are accurate, they only go so far in helping you choose the right college, which is as much an art as a science. All 300 schools on our list are best values, so it’s up to you to pick the ones that suit your student based on his or her preferences and interests. (Use our handy College Finder tool to compare selected colleges or sort all 300 colleges by the criteria that matter most to you.)

SEE ALSO: 10 Best College Values With the Lowest Average Graduating Debt

Once you’ve zeroed in on your top candidates, go to each school’s website to see how it measures outcomes for its graduates. When you arrive on campus, stop at the career center to find out about counseling services, internships, grad-school opportunities and job recruiting. Does the school have a vibrant alumni network? Pepper your campus tour guide with questions about student involvement and the campus social scene, which are particularly difficult to quantify. And remember that no single source can give you the whole story. In a twist on the old adage, Kaitlin observes that when it comes to choosing a college, you should “measure three times and cut once.”