Top 50 Colleges & Universities in America for 2014

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With this 2014 edition of The Best Colleges Top 50 Colleges and Universities in America, we set out to create a college ranking that exceeds all the others in focusing on what really matters to students and those who may be helping foot the bill for their education. We’ve gone beyond investigating standard indicators of academic quality and student satisfaction used by other major ranking systems to also consider indicators of the economic value of a school and the quality of life offered by the city or town it is located in.

Choosing a college is one of the most important decisions a person will ever make.

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The quality of social and economic opportunities opened up 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. That’s why many people talk about college education as an investment. Students (and their parents!) pour enormous amounts of money into tuition, fees, books and living expenses, not to mention all the time and effort, expecting to get something 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 quality education among other highly qualified students where they can get the kind of individualized attention from professors that they deserve. And so 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 and that has a track record of students satisfied enough to stick with a program and finish. And so The Best Colleges awarded schools with high rates of enrollment, retention and graduation.

Students also want to know that the place they will be living for the next four (or more) years will be a place where they can hang out and make connections with other young, successful and highly educated people, while not having 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 during tough economic times like these, students (and their parents) want to know that when they graduate they won’t be overburdened by student loan debt and will have a good chance of making a decent income. And so 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 all, The Best Colleges measured each school across a dozen (12) different data points to come up with an overall score for each school. You can read a more detailed explanation of our ranking methodology and data sources by clicking here.

A few notes to help navigate the rankings list. Underneath the school’s name is a brief introduction to the school, as well as a little bit about the city or town where it is located. Below that is the school’s classification, setting, population and student-to-faculty ratio. By clicking on the magnifying glass icon next to the student-to-teacher ratio, the profile will expand to display additional information on the school and city or town. By clicking the “expand all” or “collapse all” buttons at the top of the rankings list, the entire list can be expanded or collapsed.

Detailed Ranking Methodology

A college education is among the largest and most important investments of time, effort and money most Americans will make in their lifetime. The Best Colleges ranking of the 50 best American colleges and universities of 2014 was designed to help guide undergraduate students and their parents in making a wise investment.

The schools in our ranking were put through a rigorous selection process and then 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 the weight given to each one.

Reputation and Recognition

In order to be included in our rankings pool a school had to be a four-year, bachelor degree granting liberal arts college or university in the United States with at least one top 50 ranking in another major American ranking system in the last year (U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Washington Monthly, or Newsweek). In ranking systems that rank liberal arts colleges and national universities separately, a top 50 ranking in either category was sufficient for inclusion. This decision ensured that only colleges and universities of significant reputation and marketplace recognition were included. Military academies were not included in our pool due to their uniquely focused mission.

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 overall economy struggles, keeping costs and student loan debt low is more important to students (and their parents) than ever. With that in mind The Best Colleges awarded schools for having lower real costs, which we calculated by taking the estimated undergraduate student tuition and fees and subtracting the average amount of freshman financial aid. Because the average amount of financial aid packages tracks the tuition costs of the majority of the student body, for public schools that draw most of their students from in-state 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), which is the core postsecondary education data collection program of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. After the data was compiled and average aid was subtracted from estimated tuition and fees to get the real cost, the data was standardized using Z-scores and then weighted to give it a 15% overall importance in the final ranking.

  2. Median Starting Salary of Graduates

    In order to get a sense for the value of a degree from a given college, it is important to consider the likely economic payoff. Students (and their parents) want to know that after all the blood, sweat, tears and cash, there’s a good paying job to look forward to. And so The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher starting salaries for recent graduates.

    We collected data on the median starting salary of college graduates (1-4 years post-graduation) from the 2010-2011 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 but no higher degree. You can read more about the report’s methodology here. After collecting salary data for each of the schools in our pool, the data was standardized using Z-scores and then weighted to give it a 10% overall importance in the final ranking of the top colleges.

  3. Median Mid-Career Salary of Graduates

    How much one makes several years into a career is just as important as what one makes immediately after graduation (and this may indicate more about the knowledge and skills actually learned at a school since recent graduates are often hired more on the basis of the reputation of their alma mater than their actual knowledge and skill). And so The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher mid-career salaries for graduates.

    We collected data on the median mid-career salary of college graduates (10-19 years post-graduation) from the 2010-2011 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 but no higher degree. You can read more about the report’s methodology here. After collecting salary data for each of the schools in our pool, the data 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

    Especially during tough economic times like these, many students (and their parents) are concerned to live in a place where they can make a dollar stretch. The Best Colleges measured the buying power of a student’s dollar in a given location by 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 cities and towns across the U.S. After the data was compiled for each one of the cities/towns in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 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 that tend to accompany younger populations, 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. After the data was compiled for each one of the cities/towns in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 5% overall importance in the final ranking.

  3. Median Household Income

    On the assumption that most students prefer to live in areas populated by economically successful people, which often correlates with 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 the data was compiled for each one of the cities/towns in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 5% overall importance in the final ranking.

  4. Percentage of Population with College Degrees

    On the assumption that students prefer to live in places with well-educated populations, which often correlates with 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. After the data was compiled for each one of the cities/towns in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 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 speaking, the more stringent and selective a college is in its admissions process, the better the quality of students. And so The Best Colleges awarded schools with lower acceptance rates.

    Data on acceptance rates was collected from the IPEDS database. After the data was compiled for each one of the schools in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 10% overall importance in the final ranking.

  2. Student-to-Faculty Ratio

    On the assumption that smaller class sizes and fewer students per professor means the possibility for 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 available data on student-to-faculty ratios was collected from the IPEDS database. After the data was compiled for each one of the schools in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 10% overall importance in the final ranking.

STUDENT SATISFACTION

  1. Enrollment Rate

    In general students are happier and more satisfied at a school where they really want to be. Thus The Best Colleges awarded schools with higher enrollment rates, which measure the percentage of admitted students who choose to enroll. Generally, a higher enrollment rate indicates a school is more desirable to students who apply.

    The most recent available data on enrollment rates was collected from the IPEDS database. After the data was compiled for each one of the schools in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 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 with a school and awarded schools with higher retention rates.

    Data on enrollment rates was collected from the IPEDS database. After the data was compiled for each one of the schools in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 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 student satisfaction with a school and awarded schools with higher graduation rates.

    Data on graduation rates was collected from the IPEDS database. After the data was compiled for each one of the schools in our pool, it was standardized using Z-scores and assigned a weight giving it a 5% overall importance in the final ranking.

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