College Rankings

Why Our 2015 List of Best College Values Is More Useful Than Ever

We’ve made a number of changes to our annual rankings.

As college costs have risen, so has the volume of the debate over whether schools are delivering “value” for the money. At Kiplinger’s, determining value is our stock in trade, and our college rankings are no exception. We have been ranking the best values in public colleges since 1998, and the top values in private schools since 1999. We were the first to assess colleges based on a combination of academic quality and affordability criteria, and we think our rankings continue to provide the best, most objective measure of value.

For this year’s rankings, we started with a database of nearly 1,200 public and private colleges and used measures of academic quality to whittle that number to several hundred. Then our reporting team contacted each school to fill in any missing data and to get the schools to sign off on the final numbers.

We’ve made a number of changes this year that will make our list even more useful to families. For starters, we’ve combined both public and private colleges into one special report with four separate lists: the top schools among public colleges, private universities, liberal arts colleges, and—for the first time—a combined list of the top public and private schools. (Use our College Finder tool to see a side-by-side comparison of 300 colleges on the full list.)

One thing you’ll notice is that the combined list is dominated by private institutions. That’s because “the average financial aid award is a little higher at private schools, and so is the four-year graduation rate,” explains reporter Kaitlin Pitsker, who spent months combing through the data. Lesson for parents: Don’t assume in-state public schools are always the least expensive option. A private school could be even more affordable.

One number you won’t see on our list is a figure for earnings after graduation. That’s because we haven’t found a data source that meets our standards. Much of the available information is self-reported by graduates, rather than compiled by schools, and the sample size is small.

For the first time, 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 college affordability, as well as a proxy for value in the workplace. “If you’re out in four years, you’re paying less and incurring less debt,” says senior associate editor Sandra Block, who wrote our story. “Plus, you’re getting into the workforce faster.”

Beyond the numbers. Families should start with the rankings and then make a list of potential schools based on their personal interests and definition of success, which isn’t necessarily salary after graduation. Your student may prefer a special-interest school, such as one of the service academies, or a school that focuses on a strong core curriculum. (At WhatWillTheyLearn.com, you’ll find a guide that grades more than 1,000 colleges on whether they require a seven-subject core curriculum that “delivers the tools students will need to succeed in career and community.”) When you visit a school, head for the career center to see how serious it is about helping students land internships and jobs or apply to grad school. And get a feel for the campus culture. When I recently visited my undergraduate alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, in upstate New York, I struck up a conversation with a polite student who had held the door for me and learned that she was from Connecticut. What had brought her to western New York, I asked, when she could have gone to a state school closer to home? “When I visited the campus,” she replied, “I knew this was the place for me.”

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