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How Do U.S. College Values Rate?

  • Doug Bernard

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)
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.
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