The Value Test: 300 Colleges That Pass

All the schools on our list, from 1 to 300, are best values.

Ranking colleges is suddenly all the rage. News outlets, Web sites and even the federal government are getting into the act. But helping families choose the right college is nothing new for Kiplinger. We have been ranking the best values in public colleges since 1998 and the top values in private schools since 1999. And we were the first to assess colleges based on a combination of academic quality and affordability (see our 2016 rankings).

See Our Slide Show: 10 Best College Values, 2016

Value is the operative word here, and “value isn’t one-size-fits-all,” writes staff writer Kaitlin Pitsker, who oversees our rankings project. She cites two examples: Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Grinnell, Iowa, with 1,700 students, and the University of Central Florida, a behemoth with 52,000 undergraduates. In fact, one of the strengths of our list is its diversity. We start with a universe of 1,200 schools and whittle it down to the top 100 in each of three categories—public colleges, private universities and private liberal arts colleges—then combine them in a list of 300 schools.

To quantify value, we keep our criteria as objective as possible—no peer reviews or student evaluations. We use indicators of academic excellence, such as SAT scores, and affordability, such as debt after graduation and financial-aid packages excluding loans. As Kaitlin puts it, “The numbers are the numbers.”

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With the proliferation of college rankings, there’s also been more of an emphasis on “outcomes.” But that’s a bit trickier to assess. Graduates’ salaries would be an obvious measure, but it hasn’t been easy to get reliable numbers. The U.S. Department of Education’s recently released College Scorecard makes a stab at it, using tax records to determine the median earnings of workers who started at a particular college 10 years earlier (whether or not they graduated) and who received federal financial aid.

But by definition, those figures have their limitations. Plus, salary after graduation isn’t necessarily everyone’s idea of a successful outcome. Your student may prefer a special-interest school, such as one of the service academies, or a school that offers a strong core curriculum or provides opportunities for leadership or service.

Our solution is not to include earnings data in our ratings methodology, but to provide the federal data as additional information for every school on our list. In addition, we give schools credit only for their four-year graduation rate (not for their five- or six-year grad rate) to get a more precise measure of affordability, as well as a proxy for value in the workplace: You’re paying less, incurring less debt and getting a head start in the labor force.

The right fit. No rating system covers all the bases, but there’s value in giving parents and students access to useful information. “Lots of data is publicly available, but you have to know where to dig,” says Kaitlin. “We make the process more transparent.”

And any ratings system is just the starting point. All 300 schools on our list are best values, whether they come in at number 1 or number 300. It’s up to you to choose the one that suits your student based on preferences such as the size of the school, its location, campus culture and your child’s expected major.

To help you decide, we further break down the list online into subgroups, such as schools with the lowest average debt at graduation or schools with the highest four-year graduation rate. Or use our handy tool for a side-by-side comparison of all 300 colleges on the full list. Says Kaitlin, “Finding the right fit for your kid makes it an even better value.”

See Our Slide Show: 10 Best Public College Values, 2016

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.