College Rankings

How to Grade Colleges

We give extra credit to schools that hold down debt and get kids out in four years.

Beginning in 1999, Kiplinger’s has published the best values in private colleges and universities. This year, our lists take on special significance. President Obama recently proposed tying federal financial aid to colleges’ performance, based on a ratings system that would let students and families select schools that provide the best value. As soon as we heard about the President’s speech, we unleashed a barrage of tweets and Facebook posts that said “We already do that!”

The President’s proposed ratings would be based on affordability measures such as tuition, scholarships and student-loan debt, as well as graduation rates—all of which Kiplinger’s considers. Our rankings start with academic quality, then heavily weight such factors as financial aid packages, excluding loans. And we give extra credit to schools that hold down debt and get kids out in four years.

We keep our data as objective as possible to give families an unbiased comparison. “We take our job seriously,” says senior editor Jane Bennett Clark, who supervises our college coverage. Last year, says Jane, when several colleges acknowledged that they had submitted false data, “we dropped them from the rankings.”

Beyond the numbers, the President’s proposal to measure college outcomes runs into a minefield. How do you measure success when families may have different ideas of what that means? A number of sources already make a stab at it, using various benchmarks. For example, the Washington Monthly ranks schools based on what the magazine considers public-interest criteria, such as how many students join the military or the Peace Corps. Some families may be interested in schools that emphasize a strong core curriculum, which you can find in a guide called “What Will They Learn?” compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Meanwhile, in its College Salary Report, PayScale lists the median earnings for alumni of more than 1,000 schools, as self-reported in surveys.

Parents and students may not have a specific salary in mind, but given the cost of college and the lukewarm labor market, they’re at least concerned that graduates will be able to find a job. If that’s your idea of a successful outcome, here’s what I recommend: When you visit a school, don’t just look at the dorms and the climbing wall. Head for the career center to find out how serious the school is about helping students land internships and jobs or apply to grad school. When staff writer Susannah Snider visited top-ranked Washington and Lee University, she was impressed that students were focused on getting practical experience, often with internships in nearby Washington, D.C.

And students should choose a major with an eye toward marketability. They don’t have to major in such hot fields as computer engineering or nursing. But liberal arts majors should learn computer skills, and business and science majors should take classes in writing and public speaking. (See our lists of the Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career and the Worst College Majors for Your Career.)

By the numbers. When compiling any rankings, you’re only as good as your data provider. This year, after W&L topped our list, it came to light that the school had measured the number of students admitted as a percentage of total applications, including those that were never completed. When incomplete applications were omitted, W&L’s admission rate jumped a few percentage points. We double-checked our rankings using the new number, and W&L still came out on top, mainly because it had stepped up its need-based financial aid. As Jane observes, we take our job seriously.

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