Forbes ranks top 650 colleges and universities

college rankings

Ranking America's colleges and universities has become a favorite pastime for many organizations and publications, and there are many factors that can go into the various lists. But perhaps none is more important than the outcomes that students can look forward to upon graduating.

In that spirit, Forbes (, 2011) has offered its own contribution to the ranking conversation, out this week with its annual ranking of the top 650 undergraduate institutions in the United States.

"Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures, such as school 'reputation' and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending," wrote Forbes' Michael Noer. "We try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would: Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree?"

In compiling its list, Forbes gives weight to factors, such as the quality of teaching, graduation rates, the level of debt that the typical student graduates with and the career prospects for alumni.

For the second year in a row, Forbes awarded Williams College in Massachusetts with the top spot. The small liberal arts school carries a price tag of nearly $55,000, and Noer noted that "a Williams education is certainly not cheap, but the 2,000 undergraduates here have among the highest four-year graduation rates in the country, win loads of prestigious national awards like Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, and are often rewarded with high-paying careers."

The top 20 schools on Forbes' list are as follows:

  1. Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.); Annual cost: $54,921; Student population: 2,141
  2. Princeton University (Princeton, N.J.); Annual cost: $52,715; Student population: 7,592
  3. United States Military Academy (West Point, N.Y.); Annual cost: $0; Student population: 4,621
  4. Amherst College (Amherst, Mass.); Annual cost: $54,322; Student population: 1,744
  5. Stanford University (Palo Alto, Calif.); Annual cost: $55,918; Student population: 18,498
  6. Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.); Annual cost: $53,950; Student population: 27,651
  7. Haverford College (Haverford Township, Penn.); Annual cost: $55,632; Student population: 1,190
  8. University of Chicago (Chicago, Ill.); Annual cost: $57,590; Student population: 15,094
  9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Mass.); Annual cost: $53,210; Student population: 10,384
  10. United States Air Force Academy (USAF Academy, Colo.); Annual cost: $0; Student population: 4,620
  11. Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.); Annual cost: $56,406; Student population: 19,853
  12. Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, Calif.); Annual cost: $55,330; Student population: 1,238
  13. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, Calif.); Annual cost: $52,389; Student population: 2,130
  14. Yale University (New Haven, Conn.); Annual cost: $55,300; Student population: 11,593
  15. Carleton College (Northfield, Minn.); Annual cost: $54,153; Student population: 2,009
  16. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, Penn.); Annual cost: $54,153; Student population: 1,525
  17. United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, Md.); Annual cost: $0; Student population: 4,552
  18. University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.); Annual cost: $53,239; Student population: 11,816
  19. Wellesley College (Wellesley, Mass.); Annual cost: $54,000; Student population: 2,324
  20. Colby College (Waterville, Maine.); Annual cost: $53,590; Student population: 1,838

Noel noted that Princeton earned its high spot in large part thanks to a virtually flat rate of student debt that emerges from what he describes as "one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation." But other Ivy League schools didn't rank so highly. At Nos. 6 and 14, respectively, Harvard and Yale were the only other Ivies in the top 20. Brown, at No. 21, and Dartmouth at No. 30 were the only other Ivy League schools in the top 5 percent of the list.

Forbes also gives high marks on value to the military academies for their zero-tuition rates. West Point, which checked in at No. 3 this year, topped the list two years ago.

Post-graduate success main factor in evaluations

The highest scoring public school not affiliated with the military was the University of Virginia, which checked in at No. 46. The College of William and Mary ranked No. 49, and the University of California, Los Angeles, was rated No. 55.

The rankings come courtesy of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that prepares the list for Forbes. The criteria the center used in evaluating the schools were broken down into five weighted categories. The most significant factor was post-graduate success, measured by the salaries alumni earn and their prominence in their field, accounting for 30 percent of a school's ranking.

Student satisfaction followed closely behind, accounting for 27.5 percent of the score and determined by student evaluations of professors from their sophomore through senior years. Debt comprised 17.5 percent of a school's ranking, where institutions lost points with higher rates of students who graduate with heavy debt burdens. Four-year graduation rates also accounted for 17.5 percent of the rankings. The final category evaluated how many students from a given school went on to land a competitive award, such as a Fulbright or Rhodes scholarship, accounting for 7.5 percent of the scores.

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