The best public and private colleges and universities, from the student's point of view.
The best college in America isn't in Cambridge or Princeton, West Point or Annapolis. It's nestled in the Berkshire Mountains. Williams College, a 217-year-old private liberal arts school, tops our third annual ranking of America's Best Colleges. Our list of more than 600 undergraduate institutions is based on the quality of the education they provide, the experiences of the students and how much they achieve.
Williams rose to the top spot on our rankings, which are compiled with research from the Center for College Affordability & Productivity, after placing fourth last year and fifth in 2008. It's a small school (just over 2,000 undergrads) with a 7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, affording students the chance to really get to know their teachers and have a unique college experience.
"One of the things that we really embrace is that we are tiny and very aware of where we are in the world. This fosters an incredible sense of community," says Amanda Esteves-Kraus, a double-major in art history and biology in the class of 2012. "It takes a very specific type of student to go to Williams, and there is a quirkiness here that you can't find anywhere else. This all makes the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere totally irrelevant because you don't actually want to be anywhere else."
While Williams' tuition is relatively high at $37,640 a year, the school tries very hard to help its students financially. This spring Williams replaced all its loans with grants. And the school has one of the lowest average student debt loads in the country: $9,296.
Some of Williams' prominent alumni include Steve Case, cofounder of America Online; Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagram; Elia Kazan, the Oscar-winning director of films including On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire; Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City; and James A. Garfield, 20th president of the United States.
Last year's No. 1 school, the United States Military Academy (West Point), fell slightly to No. 4 on the list. The U.S. service academies, which offer high-quality education at zero tuition, all do well on our list: the United States Air Force Academy (No. 11), the United States Naval Academy (No. 29), United States Coast Guard Academy (No. 105), and the United States Merchant Marine Academy (No. 165).
Princeton University (No. 2), Amherst College (No. 3), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 5) round out the top five. Super-selective schools like Stanford (No. 6), Harvard (No. 8) and Yale (No. 10) also rank highly.
Whether they're in the top 10 or near the end of the list, all 610 schools in this ranking count among the best in the country: We review just 9% of the 6,600 accredited postsecondary institutions in the U.S., so appearing on our list at all is an indication that a school meets a high standard.
To our way of thinking, a good college is one that meets student needs. While other college rankings are based in large part on school reputation as evaluated by college administrators, we focus on factors that directly concern incoming students: Will my courses be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job?
To answer these questions, the staff at CCAP gathers data from a variety of sources. They use 11 factors in compiling these rankings, each of which falls into one of five general categories. First, they measure how much graduates succeed in their chosen professions after they leave school, evaluating the average salaries of graduates reported by Payscale.com (30%), the number of alumni listed in a Forbes/CCAP list of corporate officers (5%), and enrollment-adjusted entries in Who's Who in America (10%).
Next they measure how satisfied students are with their college experience, examining freshman-to-sophomore retention rates (5%) and student evaluations of classes on the websites RateMyProfessors.com (17.5%) and MyPlan.com (5%). They look at how much debt students rack up over their college careers, considering the four-year debt load for a typical student borrower (12.5%), and the overall student loan default rate (5%). They evaluate how many students actually finish their degrees in four years, considering both the actual graduation rate (8.75%) and the gap between the average rate and a predicted rate, based on characteristics of the school (8.75%).
CCAP also compiles a best-value ranking comparing school quality to cost. This year it's dominated by the U.S. military's service academies. The top nonmilitary school? New York's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which awards full-tuition scholarships to undergraduates (valued at $34,600 for the 2009-2010 school year). Public schools also fare well on this ranking, as they typically cost less.
Some readers may disagree with the way we construct our rankings or the weights we apply to the data. Or they may want to consider other variables, such as campus crime rates or SAT scores. So we also offer a do-it-yourself ranking that customizes the process, allowing users to construct their own list according to personal tastes and preferences.
You can only learn so much from ranking schools; it's important to match the individual student to the place. A student who thrives at Williams might do terribly at Florida State, and of course it's possible to get an Ivy League-quality education at a big state school. But with tuition and fees up significantly in the last decade, college has become one of the biggest financial decisions families make. They deserve all the information they can get.
(David M. Ewalt, Forbes.com)