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What are the top U.S. colleges? Hint: Ivy prevails

When it comes to the country's top schools, the Ivy League again rules supreme.

In the U.S. News and World Report's influential annual rankings of the country's top colleges, Princeton maintained its No. 1 status in the 2015 list, followed by three other Ivy League cohorts, Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

For tiger moms and dads, the list will confirm their belief that the best schools are also the ones that carry the most cache and bragging rights. But for U.S. News and World Report, the ranking comes at a time when more families are concerned about rising student debt and a tough job market for 20-somethings.

Other companies are offering their own versions of college rankings, with many focusing on questions of value. Research firm PayScale, for instance, is ranking colleges by return on investment, finding that there are some colleges where students would have been better off not attending. Some critics say the rankings hurt students more than they help them because schools sometimes try to game the surveys.

The more data available, the better, notes U.S. News and World Report education editor Anita Narayan. "If there's more data, it's worth looking at," Narayan told CBS MoneyWatch. "It's all about finding the right fit" for students and their families.

For pure academic power, the top 10 schools are the usual suspects, although Dartmouth, another Ivy League institution, slipped from the bunch and now stands at No. 11. Two technology-focused schools, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, were in the top 10, ranked at No. 7 and No. 10, respectively.

But what about getting the biggest bang for your buck? U.S. News and World Report has also analyzed its data to provide the best value for students. Surprisingly, the colleges offering top value aren't local community colleges. Instead, they mirror the overall top rankings, with the best value coming from Harvard University, followed by Princeton.

"We look at academic quality and affordability," Narayan noted. "Princeton is No. 2 because nearly 60 percent of students receive need-based grants, and the total cost is not that high" after receiving the grants.

At Harvard, 58 percent of students receive need-based grants, with the average cost coming out to $15,169 after that. According to the university, the 2013-14 school year carried a tuition price tag of $38,891.

Princeton gives 59 percent of its students need-based grants, leading to an average cost of $17,994. That university's full tuition is $43,540 for the 2015-16 year.

It may be no coincidence that many of the best-value universities are also among the country's wealthiest. Harvard has the country's biggest endowment, which stood at $30.7 billion at the end of 2012. It's made an effort to make the school affordable to middle-income and low-income students, with families with less than $65,000 in annual income typically paying nothing for their children to attend.

As for the overall listings for top national and liberal arts colleges, the rankings were fairly stable this year compared with last, Narayan notes. She cautions that families shouldn't put too much weight on the rankings when deciding which colleges to apply to or attend.

"This is our 30th edition, and from the beginning the advice has been the same," she notes. "The rankings are just one tool. It's a huge mistake if you only use the rankings to select a school."

Below are the top 10 national universities, followed by the top 10 schools for best value:

National universities and their 2013 acceptance rate

1. Princeton University, 7.4 percent

2. Harvard University, 5.8 percent

3. Yale University, 6.9 percent

4. Columbia University, 6.9 percent

5. Stanford University, 5.7 percent

Best value, with their annual cost after need-based grants

1. Harvard University, $15,169

2. Princeton University, $17,994

3. Yale University, $17,352

4. Stanford University, $19,361

5. MIT, $21,363

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