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Forbes Top Colleges List Yields Surprises

Aug 15, 2011

Earlier this month, Forbes released its annual ranking of undergraduate institutions. Rating 650 colleges and universities, the rankings focus on providing students with insight into which institutions are worth their cost. Forbes' spotlight on value makes for some unexpected rankings when compared to other top colleges lists.

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By Douglas Fehlen

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A Unique Rankings System

When it comes to showing well on Forbes' list of top undergrad schools, being a very prestigious or spendthrift school is not necessarily a ticket to success. The rankings, which rate 650 U.S. higher ed institutions, employ criteria that emphasize getting value out of one's postsecondary investment.

Forbes' rating system utilizes five categories to determine school rankings. Student satisfaction includes analyses of teacher quality and student retention rates, among other indicators. The debt category accounts for the average dollar amount students owe upon graduating. The rankings also factor in 4-year graduation rates as well as the number of students winning prestigious fellowships and scholarships. Finally, evaluators account for post-graduate success by examining how school alumni fare in the professional world.

Helping to explain the publication's focus on value, Forbes' rankings are compiled by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity - an organization in Washington, D.C., that was created by prominent economist Richard Vedder. Unlike some other college listings, the Forbes rankings do not reward schools for reputation, program spending or other factors the publication deems 'ephemeral.'

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Different Criteria, Different Results

For the second year in a row Williams College topped Forbes' rankings. The small liberal arts school in Massachusetts boasts very high 4-year graduation rates, and students at the school earn many prestigious distinctions, including Rhodes and Marshall awards. Additionally, grads of the institution often go on to lucrative careers that, in Forbes' estimation, make the college's $55,000 in annual tuition and fees worth it.

To take the honor of top school in Forbes' rankings, Williams College outperformed institutions many times its size - including all of the Ivy League institutions. In a demonstration of the rankings' disregard for school reputation, many Ivy League colleges and universities performed poorly in relation to how they usually fare on higher ed 'best of' lists. For instance, Columbia (#42), Cornell (#51) and the University of Pennsylvania (#52) all placed lower than is typical for them on college rankings.

Just as the value-based rankings criteria disposed some schools to perform poorly, they were a boon to other institutions' showings on the list. For example, the service academies - including West Point (#3), the Air Force Academy (#10) and the Naval Academy (#17) - ranked well. On the whole, however, public institutions did not perform impressively in the ratings. The highest-placing (non-service) public school, the College of William and Mary, came in at #49.

Looking to earn a degree on the cheap? Check out this list of the least expensive colleges in the U.S.

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