Top 50 Colleges & Universities in America for 2016

Top Online Schools

In our 2017 edition of The Best Colleges’ Top 50 Colleges and Universities in America, we aim to create a college ranking that exceeds all others in focusing on what really matters to students and their families, as they may be helping foot the bill for their education. Beyond investigating standard indicators of academic quality and student satisfaction used by other major ranking systems, we’ve also considered indicators of the economic value of good colleges and the quality of life offered by its host city or town.

Choosing good colleges or one of the many good online colleges now available is one of the most important decisions a person will ever make.

The quality of the social and economic opportunities available to a person in their lifetime will, in large part, be determined by whether and where they choose to go to school. In some respects, to choose a college is to choose a future. This is why a college education if referred to by many as an investment. Students and their families spend large amounts of money on tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, not to mention time and effort expecting to get something invaluable in return. Naturally, they want to know they are making a smart choice in where to invest their time and money.

They want to know they will receive a high-quality education among other qualified students where they can get the kind of individualized attention from professors that they deserve. To this end, in generating our rankings, The Best Colleges awarded schools with competitive admissions and a low student-to-faculty ratio.

They want to know they are in a place that other students really want to be, with a track record of satisfaction inspiring enrollees to stick with a program and follow it through to the end. This is why The Best Colleges awarded schools with high rates of enrollment, retention and graduation.

Students also want to be sure that the place they will be living for the next four (or more) years will be a place where they can collaborate and connect with other young, successful, and highly educated people — and not have to go broke to do it. And so, The Best Colleges awarded schools in locations with more youthful, wealthy, and highly educated populations and a low cost of living.

And finally, especially as we continue a gradual return to a stable economy, students (and their parents) want to know that when they graduate they won’t be overburdened by student loan debt and can potentially earn a decent income. For this, The Best Colleges awarded colleges with low tuition, generous financial aid, and a track record of graduating students who go on to make a good living.

In total, The Best Colleges measured each school across a dozen (12) different data points to assign an overall score to each school. A more detailed explanation of our ranking methodology and data sources can be found by clicking here.

Before moving on to the rankings, a few notes to help navigate the list: Underneath each school’s name is a brief introduction, as well as a little bit about the city or town in which the school is located. Below that is the school’s classification, setting, population, and student-to-faculty ratio. Clicking on the magnifying glass icon next to the “student-to-teacher ratio” of a school will expand to display additional information on the school and its location. The entire list of top colleges and universities can be expanded or collapsed by clicking the “expand all” or “collapse all” buttons at the top of the rankings list. This criteria ensured that only top colleges and universities of significant reputation and recognition within the marketplace were included. Because of their specialized programs and unique mission, military academies were not included in this rankings pool.

Detailed Ranking Methodology

A college education is among the largest and most important investments of time, effort and money many Americans will make in their lives. The Best Colleges ranking of the 50 top colleges and universities in America for 2017 aims to help guide undergraduate students and their parents in making a wise investment toward a brighter future at one of the many good online colleges or a more traditional brick and mortar school.

The schools on our list endured a rigorous selection process and were objectively evaluated across 12 unique data points in four different categories: economic value, quality of life, academic quality, and student satisfaction. Subjective decisions were limited to which data points to consider and how much weight should be given to each.

Reputation and Recognition

In order to be included in our rankings pool, a school must be a four-year, bachelor-degree-granting liberal arts college or university in the U.S. Good colleges and good online colleges must have ranked at least once in the last year among the top 50 in another major American ranking system, such as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Washington Monthly, or Newsweek. In ranking systems that Salary Report, data for the was collected through a voluntary survey of full-time employees in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree. Salary data for each of the schools in our pool was standardized using Z-scores, then weighted to give it a 10% overall importance in the final ranking of top colleges.

Rankings Criteria and Weights

Economic Value (35%)

  1. Real Cost (15%)
  2. Median starting salary of graduates (10%)
  3. Median mid-career salary of graduates (10%)

Quality of Life (30%)

  1. Cost of Living Index of city/town (15%)
  2. Median age of city/town residents (5%)
  3. Median household income of city/town residents (5%)
  4. Percentage of city/town residents with bachelor’s degree or higher (5%)

Academic Quality (20%)

  1. Acceptance rate (10%)
  2. Student-to-faculty ratio (10%)

Student Satisfaction (15%)

  1. Enrollment rate (5%)
  2. Freshman to sophomore retention rate (5%)
  3. Six-year graduation rate (5%)

ECONOMIC VALUE

  1. Real Cost As the cost of a college education continues to climb and the economy slowly regains its strength, keeping costs and student loan debt low is more important to students and their families than ever. With that in mind, The Best Colleges awarded schools for having lower real costs, calculated by subtracting the average amount of freshmen financial aid from the estimated undergraduate student tuition and fees. Schools typically assess average financial aid amounts based on the tuition costs of the majority of their student body, with public schools drawing most of their students from in-state, so we subtracted the average aid amount from in-state tuition costs. Data on tuition, fees, and aid was taken from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the core postsecondary education data collection program of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) branch of the U.S. Department of Education. After determining the real cost, we standardized the data using Z-scores and weighted it 15% of overall importance in the final ranking.
  2. Median Starting Salary of Graduates In order to get a sense of the value of a degree from any given college, the likely economic payoff should be a consideration. Students and their parents want to know that there is a well-paying job awaiting graduates in return for all their blood, sweat, tears, and cash. To this end, The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher starting salaries for recent graduates by collecting data on the median starting salary of college graduates from the 2016-2017 PayScaleU College Salary Report.
  3. Median Mid-Career Salary of Graduates The salary of a college graduate several years into a career is just as important as their salary immediately after graduation and may, in fact, indicate more about the knowledge and skills gained in school, since recent graduates are often hired more for the reputation of their alma mater than their individual qualifications. To this end, The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher mid-career salaries for graduates. We considered the median mid-career salaries of college graduates (10-19 years post-graduation) from the 2016-2017 PayScaleU College Salary Report. Data for the report was collected through a voluntary survey of full-time employees in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree. This salary data for each of the schools in our pool was standardized using Z-scores and then weighted to give it a 10% overall importance in the final ranking.

QUALITY OF LIFE

  1. Cost of Living Index Many students (and their parents) are concerned with living in a place where they can stretch their dollar as much as possible. The Best Colleges measured the buying power of a student’s dollar in a given location by using the cost-of-living index (COLI), a theoretical price index which measures the relative cost of living in a place base on the relative costs of goods and services. Schools were awarded for being in locations with a lower COLI. The COLI of each city/town came from City-Data.com, a private company which collects and analyzes data on thousands of U.S. locations. This COLI data was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 15% overall importance in the final ranking.
  2. Median Age of Population Assuming most students prefer to live with and around other young people, and appreciate the social and cultural opportunities therein, The Best Colleges awarded cities/towns with more youthful populations. Data on the median age of a city/town’s population was taken from City-Data.com. Median age date for each of the cities/towns in our pool was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.
  3. Median Household Income Assuming that most students prefer to live in areas populated by economically successful people, often tied to greater social, cultural and economic opportunities, The Best Colleges awarded cities/towns with higher amounts of income wealth. Data on the median household income of a city/town’s population was collected from City-Data.com. After median household income was collected, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.
  4. Percentage of Population with College Degrees Assuming that students prefer to live in places with well-educated populations, often leading to greater tolerance and more interesting social opportunities, The Best Colleges awarded cities/towns with a greater percentage of residents with college degrees. Data on the percentage of a town/city’s residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher was collected from City-Data.com. Percentage of population with college degrees was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.

ACADEMIC QUALITY

  1. Acceptance Rate The quality of a college education is largely determined by the academic quality and competitiveness of the student body. Generally, the more stringent and selective a college’s admissions process, the better the quality of its students. And so, The Best Colleges awarded schools with lower acceptance rates. Data on acceptance rates was collected from the IPEDS database. Data on acceptance rates was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 10% overall importance in the final ranking.
  2. Student-to-Faculty Ratio Assuming that smaller class sizes and fewer students per professor equals more individualized attention and greater access to faculty during and after class, The Best Colleges awarded schools with lower student-to-faculty ratios. The most recent student-to-faculty ratio data was collected from the IPEDS database. Data on student-to-faculty ratios was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 10% overall importance in the final ranking.

STUDENT SATISFACTION

  1. Enrollment Rate Generally, students are happier and more satisfied at a school where they really want to be. And so, The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher enrollment rates, which measure the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll. In most cases, a higher enrollment rate indicates a school is more desirable to students who apply. The most recent data available on enrollment rates was collected from the IPEDS database. This data was then standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.
  2. Retention Rate The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate measures the percentage of students who return to a school after their freshman year. We interpret this as a general measure of student satisfaction and awarded schools with higher retention rates. Data on enrollment rates was collected from the IPEDS database, standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.
  3. 12. Six-Year Graduation Rate The six-year graduation rate measures the percentage of students who graduate from a school within six years of enrolling. We interpret this as a general measure of good colleges in terms of student satisfaction, and awarded schools with higher graduation rates. Data on graduation rates was collected from the IPEDS database, standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight of 5% overall importance in the final ranking.

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