How Do U.S. College Values Rate?

We all know that a U.S. college education can be an expensive proposition. One recent study calculated the average cost of a year of study at a four-year private college in America at at shocking $28,500 – and that’s just the average! Of course, public schools can cost a lot less, but when you add in accommodations, food, books and school supplies, the yearly costs can creep back up.

One of the most common questions we get at the Student Union goes something like this: ‘How do I get the most out of my study in the US for the money?’ There are, in turns out, many different ways to answer this question.

How do you know if your college choice is a good value? (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

For years, the magazine U.S. News and World Report has issued a yearly ranking of “the best” U.S. colleges and universities rated across a variety of factors such as reputation, student-to-faculty ratio, acceptance rate, class size and other variables. It’s probably no surprise that the “biggies” of the U.S. university system – Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Standford to name a few – always come out on top. Probably also not a surprise that many of the fine colleges that don’t rate as high as they might wish have down-played the Report‘s ratings as mostly meaningless.

Recently, however, another publication – the scrappy opinion journal Washington Monthly – began assembling a different sort of list of U.S. schools: namely, the “Best Bang for the Buck” ratings.

Editors at the Monthly say their ratings rank American colleges “…that do the best job of helping nonwealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.” In practice, that means their list sorts out schools that cater mostly to wealthy students and those that have high loan default rates, among other factors. In their rankings, no Ivy League school appears anywhere in the top 30, but schools like Texas A&M, Indiana University and East Carolina University do.

These aren’t the only ratings. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance publishes an annual list of the “Best Value in Public Colleges” while the Princeton Review offers it’s own “Best 378 Colleges” review based on a various social dimensions such as “Jock Schools”, “Best Town Life” and “LGBT-friendly” among others. (Why their list is limited to 378 schools is still not entirely clear to me, but there it is.)

And that may not be the end of it. Recently, the Obama Administration announced plans to begin ranking U.S. colleges and universities across a number of factors, including graduation rates, debt loads and projected graduate earnings. The controversial proposal, which would also base federal financial aid at least in part on these rankings, faces an unclear future in the hands of a skeptical Congress.

Whether the federal government gets into the business of ranking American colleges and universities, there’s a deeper question at the root of this ratings business: what do these lists really mean? The question of whether a school is the “best” depends at least as much on the needs of the student as the school’s resources. Does Harvard University have a better reputation than Michigan State University? Arguably. But was it the best decision for me to go to the MSU rather than Harvard? At the time I thought it was and I still think so, because my experiences at MSU ended up being just right to allow me to explore different fields and then settle in on one.

There’s many factors that go into choosing a school: is it the right size? Do they offer the types of programs I want? Is the campus environment what I’m looking for? Will the costs be manageable or bury me in debt? Will I be able to work one-on-one with a professor, or will I just be another face in the crowd?

In the end I think these ratings lists can be helpful, but they’re only one measure of many you’ll need to evaluate. So do your homework, but don’t be afraid to pick the school you feel is just the right match for you.


  1. University ratings have always seemed to me to share traits with beauty contests where it’s never clear if vapidity is assessed along with bust size and overall sparkle.
    I went to Indiana University and The University of Michigan and had an immeasurably richer experience at the lower-rated IU.
    Partially, that was due to luck in faculty at IU and to my work there. Any large university contains good and bad departments, accessible or distant faculty. Each school also has a tone, an appearance, a feel from day to day, a setting that may be idyllic (IU) or far less so (UM). And the cost is, for most of us, always a concern.
    What gets lost in ratings, created by whatever geeky formulae, is the richness of one’s experience, which has little to do with the achievements of the faculty, and more to one’s own openness.
    And if we’re aiming for success, it could be helpful to talk a bit about what that means. Do we want everyone to aspire to a vice presidency at the Bank of America? Live a life of Emersonian restraint? Learn enough from books and sex and dope and late-night discussions to become interestingly offbeat? Be kind, happy, responsible and nurturing?
    Thanks for initiating this conversation.

  2. Obtaining an education as a pathway to employment is how most students view obtaining a degree and when the job of their dreams does not materialize they are disappointed but, for me it became education for the sake of education and consequently I was never disappointed

    1. I view it as all fine and good if you use education as a consumer product. However as many of these institutions are heavily supported by tax dollars we have to ask ourselves “What is the best use of our tax dollars?” and “Who is actually receiving the benefits?”. Many lower class children do not even try to get in to college because the circumstance of their lives have been detrimental to their ability to take advantage of this partially government funded resource. As a government investment I would hope that education would be an effective form of charity that would actually move people up the economic ladder and provide possibility of job skills even if they are not actually used. As a personal investment it is wisdom to get potentially valuable jobs skills first before aspiring to education as a consumer product as your circumstances might come to demand it.

  3. How does a class/degree/college stack up to the trades if you have to acquire debt? Which class/degrees/colleges are best for making money? Which degrees/colleges are best for getting an actual job? Which class/degrees/colleges are best for starting your own business? The list goes on and on. Too often education fails to give the proper training for getting ahead in life. Often the classes amount to just a consumer product and little else. The system needs revamped and that starts with knowledge and these studies are the beginning and the tip of the iceberg.

    1. Hello Joshua. Good questions, all. Many students, and recent college graduates, are asking themselves if their education and degree was really worth the time and especially money it cost to get them. It’s an area of growing debate, and one I think any prospective student should explore before committing a lot of money – and debt – in their life.

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