Which colleges are the best in the U.S.? It depends which ranking you believe.
U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Kiplinger's, and a few others have their own special recipe to pick the winners, and as frazzled parents and teens have found, their list results vary wildly. For example, U.S. News just named the University of Pennsylvania and Duke the 4th and 10th best universities in America, but Forbes ranked them the 83rd and 104th best schools.
So which rankings are legit and how should you use them? To find out, MoneyWatch.com took a hard look at their methodology and rated the raters on a scale of one to five stars. We can only recommend one: Forbes' America's Best Colleges. Despite its limitations, it comes closest to actually measuring the quality of the education at the nation's best schools.
Ultimately, though, the usefulness of any college ranking will depend on what criteria matters most to you and your teen. The best strategy: Use a few of the rankings to amass quantifiable and anecdotal data, allowing you and your prospective freshman to create your own Top 10 list.
U.S. News & World Report
Report: America's Best Colleges 2010
No. 1 National University (tie): Harvard University and Princeton University
No. 1 Liberal Arts College: Williams College
How it compiles rankings: In grading 1,400 schools, kingpin U.S. News looks at what it considers to be key measures of quality. Examples: What college administrators think of their peer schools (25 percent of a college's score), how many students return after freshmen year, faculty salaries, and class sizes. Its rankings favor elite schools because U.S. News bestows higher marks to institutions with the best reputations that also reject most applicants and enjoy extremely generous alumni.
What's good: The magazine generates useful lists of top up-and-coming schools (University of Maryland at Baltimore County and Hendrix College are No. 1) as well as specialty colleges that focus on fine arts, business, or engineering.
What's not good: As I've written in my MoneyWatch.com blog, The College Solution, U.S. News relies heavily on the reputation of schools, through its administrator peer reviews, which virtually guarantees that the Ivies and other highly selective institutions rank highest. Harvard's president is supposed to rank all the national universities - from Oklahoma State to Drexel - and vice versa. Schools also try to game the U.S. News rankings. According to Inside Higher Ed, Clemson's president, for instance, gave his only "strong" rating to his own school.
Best for: Families mystified about college choices and looking for the most comprehensive rankings.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ***
Report: America's Best Colleges 2009
Best College: United States Military Academy
Best College Buy: Berea College
How it compiles rankings: Forbes' self-declared aim is to size up 600 colleges "based on the quality of the education they provide, the experience of the students and how much they achieve." The Center for College Affordability & Productivity, an education think tank, helps produce the rankings. Twenty-five percent of a school's score is based on students' satisfaction with their courses, according to evaluations at RateMyProfessors.com. This being Forbes, another quarter of the weighting is pegged to salaries of a school's graduates. The Forbes rankings also favor schools with high four-year graduation rates, and ones whose faculty and students win national and international awards. (The magazine also puts together a smaller list of 200 schools called "America's Best College Buys.")
What's good: Forbes actually attempts to measure the quality of the education students receive (imagine that!). Lesser-known liberal-arts jewels such as Centre College, Lawrence University, and DePauw University score very well.
What's not good: Since Forbes ranks only 600 schools, some wonderful schools are undoubtedly missing. Some critics complain that a portion of each school's ranking depends on the number of alumni listings in Who's Who in America.
Best for: Finding schools offering quality educations and preparation for decent-paying jobs.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ****
Report: 2009 Best Values in Colleges & Universities
Best Value Private University: California Institute of Technology
Best Value Private Liberal Arts College: Pomona College
Best Value Public College: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
How it compiles rankings: The magazine generates three Best Values lists: one list of 120 public colleges, one of 50 private universities, and one of 50 private liberal arts colleges. It starts with 500 to 600 schools and narrows down candidates based on academic factors such as SAT/ACT scores, student-faculty ratios, and graduation rates. After shrinking the pools academically, the magazine rates schools based on their cost and financial aid. In the final scoring, academic quality counts for more than price.
What's good: With the cost of a bachelor's degree soaring - now an average $34,132 a year at private colleges and $14,333 at public universities - it's smart to factor in the cost of an education when shopping for a school.
What's not good: The lists don't really measure the quality of the education. And just because Kiplinger's praises a school for its financial aid practices doesn't mean your teenager will benefit. For instance, Pomona College (No. 1 in Kiplinger's Liberal Arts list) stuffs its aid packages with free grant money for needy students but doesn't offer merit scholarships to upper-income kids. So wealthy parents can be stuck paying more than $200,000 over four years - not necessarily a great "value."
Best for: Discovering potentially generous schools with smart students.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ***
Report: The Best 371 Colleges
How it compiles rankings: The Princeton Review has a bunch of mini lists but no overall list. Each year, the college prep outfit selects "the best" public and private colleges (371 in the 2010 list), although it won't say exactly how these schools are chosen. It then asks students from those schools - 122,000 this year - to rate their institutions in 62 (sometimes quirky) categories and produces rankings of the top 20 colleges in each. You can find lists, for instance, of schools with the most liberal students (Warren Wilson College) and the most conservative (Texas A&M); the most religious (Thomas Aquinas College) and least religious (Bennington); the "happiest students" (Brown University) and the "least happy students" (United States Merchant Marine Academy).
What's good: Princeton Review has one of the few rankings where you can find out what students really think about their schools - for better or worse. In surveys asking students about the accuracy of their school's category results, more than 92 percent say they are on target.
What's not good: There is nothing scientific about these rankings. And some of the data is a little old. Some surveys from this year's rankings are from the 2006-2007 school year.
Best for: Comparing the quality of life at academically comparable schools.
MoneyWatch.com rating: ***
Report: College Guide 2009
No. 1 Liberal Arts College: Amherst College
No. 1 National University: University of California at Berkeley
How it compiles rankings: Washington Monthly, a neoconservative political journal, looks at 258 national universities and liberal arts colleges through a very different prism than other raters. Starting with the premise that the best schools make significant contributions to society, the magazine bases its ratings on three criteria: social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), research (producing "cutting-edge" scholarship and PhDs), and service (encouraging students to give back to their country).
What's good: The magazine admirably wants to steer attention away from what it calls the "maniacal focus on elite schools" and shine a spotlight on unsung state schools, where the vast majority of students end up.
What's not good: The parameters are extremely narrow, albeit honorable, and large universities get favored treatment. Also, many students won't give a hoot about some of the magazine's measurements. Schools with many students in the ROTC enjoy a rankings boost, for example.
Best for: Gathering possibilities for idealistic teens who want to change the world.
MoneyWatch.com ranting: **
American Council of Trustees and Alumni
Report: What Will They Learn?
How it compiles rankings: The newest and nerdiest kid on the ratings block, the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, ranks 125 universities to see which "are making sure their students learn what they need to know." Translation: whether a school requires undergrads to take classes in seven core subjects: composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. Each school is assigned a letter grade based on its online course catalog. A school gets an "A" if it requires classes in six to seven core subjects, an "F" if it requires one or none. ACTA was founded by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman.
What's good: The council is nobly drawing attention to the weakening of general education requirements at colleges.
What's not good: The criterion is so stiff that only seven schools got an "A": Baylor University, City University of New York at Brooklyn College, City University of New York at Hunter College, Texas A&M, United States Military Academy, University of Arkansas, and University of Texas at Austin. Schools that scored a big fat "F" include Amherst, Brown, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Best for: Ensuring students will leave college having taken courses in all major disciplines of academia.
MoneyWatch.com rating: **
Best of the Best
So how do the nation's top colleges and universities stack up? After wading through all the major rankings, MoneyWatch.com found that these schools were consistently rated among the best:
Stanford University: Only school to make Top 10 lists of U.S. News, Kiplinger's, and Washington Monthly
Pomona College: No. 1 in Kiplinger's Best Value Private Colleges and Princeton Review's Best Classroom Experience; No. 6 in U.S. News' Best Liberal Arts Colleges
College of William & Mary: Forbes' No. 1 state university, U.S. News' No. 6 Best Public University, No. 8 on Washington Monthly's list
Princeton University: Tied with Harvard for U.S. News' No. 1 National University; No. 2 Forbes' Best Colleges
Davidson College: No. 4 in Kiplinger's Best Values Liberal Arts, and No. 9 in U.S. News' Best Liberal Arts Colleges
More on MoneyWatch:
The Best Colleges You've Never Heard Of
Why US News' College Rankings Are a Joke
The Best and Worst College Degrees by Salary
Are Ivy League Schools Fudging Their Numbers?
Top Colleges to Cut Big Aid Packages?