Best Value Colleges 2016: The 300 Schools Worth The Investment

By Caroline Howard
Forbes.com
via Yahoo! Finance

In the coming weeks, high school seniors, transfer students and their families will make one of the most important personal and financial decisions of their lives: What college to attend? For this reason, FORBES has compiled this newly reimagined Best Value Colleges ranking based on tuition costs, school quality, graduation success rates and post-grad earnings.

Have you heard, American higher education as we know it is fast approaching the cliff's edge. Costs are way up, not to mention individual and collective student debt levels (now at $1.2 trillion nationally). State funding remains well below pre-recession levels. While the admissions race for spots at elite universities is ever more insatiable and manic, other schools are facing collapsing enrollment. The classic liberal arts are threatened by a surge in STEM programs, and there is talk of disrupting or "unbundling" college degrees in favor of digital portfolios of marketable skill sets. We idolize millennial billionaire dropouts such as Mark ZuckerbergElizabeth Holmes and Palmer Luckey.

A Google search of "is college worth it?" yields nearly 500 million hits. While that's a pretty good time stamp of the alarm, it's more abstract than actual. Federal data reveals enrollment among 18-24-year-olds in four-year degree programs holds at 28% for 2013 and 2012 (most recent years available), up from 26% the year this fall's freshmen were born in 1998 and from about 20% when their parents' generation graduated in the 1980s. In the case of parents, 94% say they expect their children to attend college, according to the Pew Research Center.

More on Forbes: 300 Best Value Colleges 2016 (In Pictures)

With a college degree still a near universal aspiration in this country, FORBES looks at the U.S. colleges and universities that provide students with the most value for the dollar. This is our newly reimagined Best Value Colleges ranking, an analysis of the brainiest research universities and leading liberal arts schools, both public and private, that are well worth the investment. (Methodology appears below.) 

The Top 10

University of California, Berkeley is the No. 1 Best Value College, followed by Brigham Young University and University of Florida. The top 10 include three more U.C. schools -- UCLA (No. 4), U.C. San Diego (No. 5) and U.C. Irvine (No. 10). MIT and Harvard University are the only East Coast private schools in the top (No. 6 and No. 9). The Midwest makes a showing at No. 7 with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign while the South's public Georgia Institute of Technology comes in at a No. 8.

We've tapped into something very interesting. The top Best Value Colleges are not bundled in the Northeast and founded prior to 1800. Rather they are mostly West Coast, public and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-oriented.

STEM and Liberal Arts

Research universities make a strong showing in the top 50 Best Value colleges, taking 38 of the spots. Caltech and Stanford University show at No. 11 and 12, respectively, followed by Carnegie Mellon University (No.  27), Virginia Tech (No. 29) and Colorado School of Mines (No.45). Many of the baccalaureate colleges in the top are also STEM-oriented: Harvey Mudd College (No. 13) and Cooper Union (No. 38), to name two.

This is a practical issue. Forty percent of bachelor's degrees earned by men and 29% earned by women (mind the gender gap) are now in science and engineering, driven largely by growth in the "hard sciences." Thank the explosion of technology and drive for competitive innovation in all industries, along with federal and state incentives (such as performance-based funding), for this increase. STEM is where the jobs (and bigger salaries) are.

And yet, in a testament to the attraction, resilience and value of the liberal arts, this ranking is full of schools that develop the "philosopher's touch." Claremont-McKenna College (No. 30), Williams College (No. 43), Carleton College (No. 62) and Davidson College (No. 75) all make the top 100. Even among research universities, not everyone is in the lab or coding: at Rutger's University (No. 49), one-third of the most popular majors lie outside the hard sciences, while at the University of Chicago (No. 56) some 42% opt for social sciences or English language/literature. That's far from idealistic or unhireable. As outlined in "That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket:"

Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Texas, software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger.

Methodology of Best Value Colleges

For this new Best Value Colleges ranking, our sights are set directly on one question: What schools are worth the investment? To answer this question, FORBES partnered exclusively with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. CCAP gathered data from a variety of sources. The formula, five general categories and weights are noted below:

Quality (35%) + drop-out risk (15%) + graduation time (15%) + alumni salaries (25%) + alumni skills (10%) / gross tuition and fees. 

Quality (35%): This is based on the 2015 FORBES Top Colleges ranking. Full methodology is here.

Drop-out risk (15%): This is based not on retention rates but rather the percentage of students who do not graduate in six years. For example, if 80% of students earn their diploma within six years time, our factor is that 20% remaining. This is reported by the schools to the Department of Education database (IPEDS).

Graduation success (15%): Similarly, we look to IPEDS data for the average expected number of years it takes to graduate -- of those who do graduate within six years. For example, a stellar school might have an average of 4 years while its not-so-successful counterpart may be looking at a 5.7 year average rate.

Post-graduate earnings (25%): We use our own blended model of mid-career earnings (meaning at least 10 years of working), based both on PayScale and the new U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. PayScale is the market leader in global online compensation data but that data is wholly self-reported. The College Scorecard is based on federal income tax returns. Can you get any more accurate? Well, yes. Because the Scorecard pulls only from former students who received federal financial aid. We feel a blended approach is the most accurate snapshot currently available. 

Value-added (10%): Last year our colleagues at Brookings came up  with an exciting ranking system of their own, "A Value-Added Approach To Assessing Two- And Four-Year Schools." Most simply put, this list is "an attempt to isolate the effect colleges themselves have on those outcomes [like salaries], above and beyond what students’ backgrounds would predict."

Gross tuition and fees: Pulled from IPEDS, this is the sticker price without accounting for room and board. For public schools, we account for differences between in- and out-state tuition based on percentage of in- and out-state students. For example, if one state college has 5% out-state students while another has 27%, this would impact our tally of these schools' tuition.

In the last 10 years, students and their families paid out 37% and 25% percent more for a four-year public and private education, respectively. Tuition, fees, room/board is now some $20,000 annually for public students and $44,000 for their private school counterparts. This tab translates into a run on college loans, both in terms of the amount borrowed and the number of students turning to loans. The average borrower from the class of 2015 owes a little more than $35,000, according to an analysis of government data. Going back 10 years, that's up from an average $20,000. And almost 71% of bachelor's degree recipients will graduate with student debt, compared with about 64% in 2005. 

That is concerning. The median U.S. household income was nearly $54,000 in 2014, the latest data available from the U.S. Census. The issue boils down to whether students and their families can afford to pay some $80,000 to $176,000 (at sticker price) for a four-year college education, more with multiple children in school.

Note: Absent from this ranking are the five U.S. service academies: the Military Academy in West Point, Naval AcademyCoast Guard AcademyMerchant Marine Academy and undefined Air Force Academy. These federal institutions charge little to no tuition or fees and instead require a minimum term of duty upon graduation. Similarly, we do not include specialized schools, such as Babson College and the Savannah College of Art and Design, that lie outside the main Carnegie Classifications.