Here's how we determined which of the nation's roughly 1,500 four-year colleges and universities give you the best value for your money.
To make our initial cut, a college had to have a graduation rate that was at or above the median for its institutional category (public or private). If a school's rate was below the median but was at least 25% above what would be expected given the incomes and test scores of its students—in other words, if the school added a great deal of value for its students—we made an exception and included it. We then screened out schools showing signs of financial difficulty—those with speculative bond ratings from Moody's, or those flagged as having financial problems by the U.S. Department of Education. We also screened out colleges for which we did not have sufficient data, and military academies that require a commitment of service in exchange for free tuition.
That left 736 schools, which we ranked on 21 factors in three categories:
Quality of Education (1/3 weighting)
- Six-year graduation rate (35%), widely recognized as one of the most important indicators of a college's quality.
- Peer quality (15%), measured by the standardized test scores of entering freshman (10%) and the percentage of accepted students who enroll in that college, known as the "yield" rate (5%).
- Instructor quality (15%), measured by the student-to-faculty ratio (10%) and the college's average grade from Ratemyprofessor.com (5%).
- Value-added graduation rate (35%), or the difference between a school's actual graduation rate and its expected rate, based on the economic and academic profile of the student body (measured by the percentage of attendees receiving Pell grants given to low-income students and the average standardized test scores of incoming freshmen).
Affordability (1/3 weighting)
- Net price of a degree (30%), or the estimated amount a typical freshman starting in 2015 will pay to earn a degree, taking into account the college's sticker price; the school's average need, merit, and athletic financial aid; tuition inflation; and the average time it takes students to graduate from the school.
- Debt (30%), taking into account both student debt upon graduation (20%) and parent federal PLUS loans (10%).
- Student loan default risk (15%), a calculation of the odds that a student at the college will end up being unable to pay back a federal student loan.
- Value-added student loan default risk (15%), adjusted for the economic and academic profile of the student body.
- Affordability for low- and moderate- income students (10%), based on federally collected data on the net price that students from families earning $0 to $30,000 and $30,000 to $48,000 pay.
Outcomes (1/3 weighting)
- Graduates' earnings (25%), as reported by alumni to PayScale.com; early career earnings within five years of graduation (20%) and mid-career earnings (5%).
- Earnings adjusted by majors (25%). To see whether students at a particular school earn more or less than would be expected given the subjects students choose to study, we adjusted PayScale.com's data for the mix of majors at each school; for early career earnings (20%) and mid-career earnings (5%).
- Value-added earnings (25%). To see if a school is helping launch students to better-paying jobs than competitors that take in students with similar academic and economic backgrounds, we adjusted PayScale.com's earnings data for the student body's average test scores and the percent of low-income students at each school; for early career earnings (20%) and mid-career earnings (5%).
- Career services (15%), measured by staffing per 1,000 students (10%) and the presence of a program that connects job-seeking students with alumni (5%).
- Market value of alumni skills (10%), using the Brookings Institution's calculation of the market value of the 25 skills that alumni of each school most commonly list on their LinkedIn profile.
Finally, we used a statistical technique to turn all the data points into a single score and ranked the schools based on those scores.
For a full description of the methodology, see "How MONEY Ranked Colleges: An In-Depth Look" on Money.com.
What the Filters Mean
Location: You can select a region or state, or multiple regions or states.
Size: Total undergraduate enrollment
Public/Private: Select one school type or "all" for both.
Test Scores: The average SAT and ACT score reported by the freshmen who entered the school last year
Selectivity: "Less Selective" schools accept more than 66% of applicants. "Somewhat selective" accept between 66% and 33%. "Highly Selective" accept less than than 33%.
Majors: Majors offered by each school organized into the federal government's list of more than 400 fields of study.
Type of campus: The campus setting, according to the federal government's classifications
SAT/ACT Required? Some schools don't consider the test scores of applicants. Some don't require them, but give preference to applicants with good scores.
Male/Female Ratio: "Roughly equal" means no more than 60% of the student body is male or female; "predominantly male" means 60% to 99% of student body is male; "predominantly female" means 60% to 99% of student body is female.
Merit Aid: "Very Generous" means the school says it gives more than 50% of students grants without regard to their family's income. "Somewhat Generous" means 25% to 50%. "Not Generous" means less than 25%.
Need-based Aid: "Very Generous" means that low- and moderate-income students are likely to get sufficient aid to meet all, or almost all, of their demonstrated financial need. "Somewhat Generous" means the school, on average, meets much, but not all of students' need. "Not Generous" means the school generally does not provide enough aid to meet students' needs. (This is based on a MONEY analysis of the net prices charged to low- and moderate-income families, as well as the percentage of need that the college claims to meet.)
Sports: The varsity sports teams provided by the college