The Best Colleges in the U.S.
Never has it been more important to establish honest and transparent value assessments for institutions of higher education. Unprecedented tuition increases have made higher education unaffordable for many, leading students to question whether earning a degree is worth the cost.
A new college ratings system
We have analyzed 2,203 4-year colleges and universities using data from 2 Department of Education programs – the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and College Scorecard.
Many ranking systems focus on assigning value to different schools based on a myriad of non-economic factors – student to teacher ratios, incoming student average test scores, endowment size, and peer reviews to name a few. Our ranking system is different because it is focused entirely on median economic output, or which schools and programs offer students a better chance of higher economic success.
Our findings have led to the conclusion that, for most degree programs available on the market, the answer is yes – the value of higher education is indeed worth the investment.
For just about half of all surveyed schools (approximately 1,219), median earnings after graduation allow students to recoup – or pay back – their educational investment in less than 5 years through improved earnings.
How do we calculate return on educational investment?
- We take median student earnings 10 years after the first year of studies.
- We deduct the median net cost of the degree (after aid) from these earnings.
- We deduct the earnings that the student likely would have had with just a high school diploma.
Students from 589 surveyed schools, however, took at least 10 years to recoup their educational investment.
The majority of those 589 schools, 25% of the total schools surveyed, provide negative value to students, meaning that their students would likely have been financially better off not going to college in the first place.
How do we calculate our economic score?
We derive an economic score used to rank schools by combining the above payback model with comparative earning rates, or how much more or less students from each school earn against the average.
A full 50% of our top 20 schools are large public universities and city colleges. Three of those admit over 50% of applicants, and none accept fewer than 15%.
Private colleges and liberal arts schools, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, need-blind and test-optional colleges, HBCUs, and Ivy League institutions – our top schools represent a true cross section of the American higher education landscape and lay to waste the notion that substantial economic success is only possible with an elite education.
» Read: How do we calculate ranking scores?
Choosing a college
Find below some of the most important categories of institutions of higher education. Each category ranks the representative schools using our economic score.
The best national universities
National universities include those categorized by the Carnegie Classification system as doctoral universities. Doctoral universities are institutions offering a wide variety of undergraduate and post-graduate programs and demonstrating a high level of research activity.
1. CUNY City College
2. Princeton University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The best liberal arts colleges
Liberal arts colleges are primarily undergraduate institutions, with the majority of degrees awarded in the liberal arts. These schools are almost always private and much smaller than national universities.
1. Harvey Mudd College
2. Claremont McKenna College
3. Washington and Lee University
Hispanic-serving institutions (HSI)
For an institution to be categorized as an HSI, Hispanic students must account for at least 25% of the student body. Most HSIs are public universities and colleges located in urban settings with large Hispanic populations.
1. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College
2. CUNY Hunter College
3. CUNY Lehman College
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU)
HBCUs were established prior to the Civil Rights act, with a purpose of providing education to black students. More than 70% of HBCU students depend on Pell Grants, and a majority are first-generation students. Even so, HBCUs graduate a relatively high percentage of black students with STEM majors as compared to non-HBCU institutions.
1. North Carolina A & T State University
2. Bowie State University
3. Xavier University of Louisiana
There are just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S. today. Women pursuing STEM, business, or political studies may benefits most from attending women’s colleges, as these courses are often disproportionately male at coed colleges. A study by the Women’s College Coalition found 81% of women’s college graduates reported feeling ‘extremely’ or ‘very prepared’ for a career, compared to 65% nationally.
1. Wellesley College
2. Barnard College
3. Ursuline College
The best for-profit schools
Though they take some flack, for-profit schools provide educational opportunities to many students that might not otherwise be able to attend college. Pick the right school and program, and you can get a very solid return on your investment – often in entirely online format.
1. Columbia Southern University
2. Neumont College of Computer Science
3. American Public University System
The best colleges by state
Choosing the best college in your state or which out-of-state college to attend can be a fraught process for both students and parents. Location is key, but so are the long-term payoffs of your degree. We use official government data (College Scorecard and IPEDS) to provide prospective students and their parents with actionable guidance on which colleges in each state provide economic value and which do not.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Program and degree rankings
Economic outcomes may vary greatly within each school depending on choice of major. We compare 2000+ schools in dozens of different program and major categories and document which programs offer the best return on educational investment and earning potential to students.
- Best colleges for business administration
- Best colleges for finance
- Best colleges for marketing
- Best colleges for human resources
- Best colleges for accounting
- Best colleges for education majors
- Best early childhood programs
- Best elementary education programs
- Best secondary education programs
- Best special education programs
- Best undergraduate engineering programs
- Best colleges for chemical engineering
- Best colleges for civil engineering
- Best colleges for computer engineering
- Best colleges for electrical engineering
- Best colleges for environmental engineering
- Best colleges for industrial engineering
- Best colleges for mechanical engineering
- Best colleges for communications
- Best colleges for criminal justice
- Best colleges for economics
- Best colleges for English majors
- Best colleges for history majors
- Best colleges for political science
- Best colleges for social work
- Best colleges for sociology
College advice – picking colleges, and what comes after
How to choose a college is just one piece of the puzzle. The college application process comes first, with its own set of challenges. Once you accept an offer and start studying, then picking a major, balancing school and life, considering a study abroad program, and finding the right extracurriculars can all become overwhelming. See below a selection of our blog pieces with advice on all these topics and more.