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College Rankings

How We Rank the Best College Values, 2019

This year, we've expanded our annual rankings to include 400 schools. Here's how we narrowed down our list to select the top colleges and universities for academics and affordability.

To come up with our best values, we start with data on nearly 1,200 public and private four-year schools from Peterson’s Undergraduate Database, then add our own reporting. This year, we expanded our list to include 400 schools, plus 100 schools that just missed our list but also deliver great value. We narrow the list based on measures of academic quality. We then rank each school using cost and financial aid measures. Quality criteria account for 55% of total points, and cost criteria account for 45%.

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Competitiveness

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 selectivity, and the second shows ability to compete for accepted applicants. We also consider the percentage of incoming freshmen who are high scorers on the SAT or ACT because high achievers enhance the academic atmosphere.

Graduation Rates

On the quality side, our rankings give the most weight to the four-year graduation rate to reward colleges that help students get undergraduate degrees on time and within budget.

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To reflect the benefit that comes from earning a degree -- even if it takes more than four years—we award a handful of points for five- and six-year graduation rates. We award extra points to schools that do a stellar job of graduating students with financial need.

Academic Support

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 on track. Students per faculty—the average number of students per faculty member—is another measure of how well each college fulfills its academic mission.

Cost and Financial Aid

To evaluate costs, we give the most points to schools with the lowest total cost (tuition, fees, room and board, and books). In the com­bined rankings, we use out-of-state costs for the public schools to provide an apples-to-apples comparison with private schools. On the public-school list, we rank the schools according to in-state costs and calculate out-of-state costs separately for the out-of-state rank. We then add points to schools that reduce the price through need-based aid (grants but not loans) and to those that knock down the price through non-need-based aid. We also compare the average financial aid award for first-year students with that of all undergraduates, rewarding schools that avoid giving generous awards to incoming students only to reduce them later. 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 to schools based on the percentage of students without need who receive non-need-based aid.

Student Indebtedness

Schools that provide enough financial support to keep students’ average debt at graduation to a minimum deserve credit, and we award points accordingly. We also factor in the percentage of students who borrow. The lower the number, the better the score.

Salary Yardstick

To offer a glimpse of what your child’s payday may look like a decade after starting college, we show the median earnings of workers who started at a particular college 10 years earlier and who received federal financial aid. The figures come from the U.S. Department of Education. The data don’t consider whether the workers graduated from college or went on to graduate school, nor do they reflect salary differences between those who studied, say, English rather than engineering. Because of these limitations, we don’t include the salary figures in calculating each school’s rank. Still, the information offers a way to gauge earnings outcomes and a starting point for your estimates.

Additions and Exclusions

Our rankings focus on traditional four-year schools with broad-based curriculums, along with student housing. Schools that offer great value but focus on special or narrow academic programs, such as the military service academies, are excluded.

Schools We Couldn’t Rank

In our continuing effort to provide the most accurate and complete data available, we have excluded schools that did not supply us with all the data we need to calculate their ranking. For a list of excluded schools, go here.

Kaitlin Pitsker, Marc A. Wojno and David Kuchler helped compile this data.

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