The 10 best colleges for your money

Choosing a college is one of the most important financial decisions families ever have to face. Not only does it represent a huge up-front expense -- one year at an "affordable" public university can easily set you back $20,000 a year -- but where you go to college can also affect your salary for years to come.

To help families make smart choices, MONEY's annual college rankings examine dozens of data points to measure the costs and payoffs of thousands of schools. Colleges are judged on how much families really pay after financial aid, how many students go on to graduate, and how well those graduates fare in the workplace according to salary data collected by PayScale.com.

MONEY's 2016 Best Colleges list, released Monday, offers a mix of public and private, large and small, uber-selective and lesser-known gems. All 705 of the colleges on the list (chosen from the roughly 2,000 four-year colleges in the U.S.) provide an above-average value for students' and parents' money.

Click ahead for a peek at some of this year's highest-ranked colleges.

For the full list, check out MONEY's College Planner.

​10. Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $65,300

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $22,000

Average student debt: $12,224

Early career earnings: $68,800

Stanford isn't one of the eight members of the elite Ivy League, but the university would fit right in. It's the hardest school in the country to get into and has generous financial aid policies, much like Princeton and Harvard. But here's a key difference: Recent Stanford graduates report average annual salaries that are $8,000 higher than those of Ivy League grads.

Read more about Stanford.

​9. University of Virginia

Charlottesville, Va.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $28,100

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $12,000

Average student debt: $19,500

Early career earnings: $55,400

UVA boasts the highest graduation rate of any public university in the country, at 93 percent. The university's academic strengths are wide-ranging, and the campus is the only U.S. college to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks its connection to founder Thomas Jefferson.

Read more about UVA.

​8. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

New York City

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $62,800

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $22,200

Average student debt: $17,570

Early career earnings: $63,200

Cooper Union is unique -- a small, urban school that offers degrees only in art, architecture, and engineering. Though Cooper Union no longer has the free tuition policy it was founded with, it's still much more affordable than other elite private colleges.

Read more about Cooper Union.

​7. Amherst College

Amherst, Mass.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $66,600

Estimated price for 2016-17 with aid: $18,000

Average student debt: $11,186

Early career earnings: $53,400

An elite liberal arts college, Amherst is one of a small group of schools that will meet 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of students. As a result, more than two-thirds of its students graduate without taking on loans.

Read more about Amherst.

​5. (tie) Brigham Young University-Provo

Provo, Utah

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $18,500

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $14,700

Average student debt: $11,000

Early career earnings: $51,800

BYU-Provo is the main campus of a private college system specializing in educating members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Non-Mormons can attend, but they are charged more for tuition and must obey the school's strict code of conduct. The university has a high graduation rate, competitive salaries for recent graduates, and a very affordable price for a private education.

Read more about BYU-Provo.

​5. (tie) University of California-Berkeley

Berkeley, Calif.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $35,700

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $25,300

Average student debt: $14,667

Early career earnings: $60,300

UC-Berkeley, or Cal for short, ranks the highest of eight University of California system schools that made MONEY's rankings. In fact, Cal is one of the most selective public colleges in the country. More than 90 percent of freshmen graduate within six years, a rate well above even other elite public universities.

Read more about UC-Berkeley.

​4. Rice University

Houston, Texas

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $58,600

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $24,300

Average student debt: $8,413

Early career earnings: $63,700

The typical Rice student majors in engineering, economics, or biology, and the university is also well known in the field of political science. Graduates of the selective private school fare well in the workforce: Recent grads out-earn their peers from similar schools by 16 percent, according to salary data from Payscale.com.

Read more about Rice.

​3. Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $64,800

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $18,900

Average student debt: $19,500

Early career earnings: $54,500

Harvard may be the most recognizable college in the world, and it's practically synonymous with the prestigious Ivy League. Like many of its peers, Harvard excels in MONEY's rankings not only because of the outstanding education it provides but also thanks to its generous financial aid program.

Read more about Harvard.

​2. University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $28,100

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $14,300

Average student debt: $22,000

Early career earnings: $59,000

The University of Michigan accepts less than a third of the nearly 50,000 students who apply annually, and the university is nearly as popular with out-of-staters as with Michiganders. State residents who do get in enjoy an especially good deal: Michigan is one of only 11 colleges in MONEY's top 50 where the average in-state cost of a degree totals less than $100,000.

Read more about the University of Michigan.

​1. Princeton University

Princeton, N.J.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $61,300

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $20,100

Average student debt: $6,810

Early career earnings: $62,800

Princeton University's generous financial aid makes it, according to MONEY's analysis, the most affordable member of the Ivy League. The school gives out such large grants to the six in 10 families who qualify (families earning less than $250,000 generally get some aid) that more than 83 percent of students graduate without any debt.

Read more about Princeton.

For the full list, check out MONEY's College Planner.

Methodology

How MONEY rates colleges

To make our first cut, colleges must have 500 or more full-time under- graduates and a six-year graduation rate of at least the median for their type (public or private). We also screened out schools with low grades from bond-rating agencies and those identified by the U.S. Department of Education as being in financial trouble. That left 705 colleges, which we ranked on 24 measures in three equally weighted categories:

Quality of education

Judged by the school's six-year graduation rate, its student-to-faculty ratio, two measures of the caliber of the student body (incoming freshmen's standardized test scores and the percent- age of admitted students who enroll), and MONEY's "comparative value" analysis of graduation rates, which assesses schools against others that have similar student populations.

Affordability

Determined by a combination of the latest available federal data on student and parent borrowing, the average net price the college charges students for a degree (after subtracting any institutional aid and accounting for the average number of semesters it takes students there to complete a bachelor's degree), affordability for low- income students, and federal student-loan default and re-payment rates.

Outcomes

Based on four earnings-related measures, including graduates' early- and mid-career earnings as reported to PayScale.com, the market value of alumni skills as posted on LinkedIn and estimated by the Brookings Institution, and the earnings of financial aid recipients as reported on the federal College Scorecard. The rankings adjust alumni earnings data to account for the different economic backgrounds of students and the varied mix of majors at each college. MONEY also factors in the staffing and programs of each college's career- services office. A new addition to the rankings this year: the percentage of each college's alumni who told PayScale.com that their job "makes the world a better place."