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by Vault Education Editors | August 12, 2010


Only in its third year, the Forbes ranking looks at undergraduate programs a little differently. Enough so, that the No. 1 school has changed each year. Its inaugural year, Princeton University (my alma mater, go Tigers!) was No. 1. Last year, the United States Military Academy took the No. 1 spot, pushing Princeton down to No. 2. This year, Williams College tops the list, though Princeton holds steady at No. 2.

Williams College is No. 1 in Forbes America's Best Colleges Ranking

Top 10 Forbes America's Best Colleges

  1. Williams College
  2. Princeton University
  3. Amherst College
  4. United States Military Academy at West Point
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Stanford University
  7. Swarthmore College
  8. Harvard University
  9. Claremont McKenna College
  10. Yale University

As you can see, small liberal arts colleges dominate the list, with four in the Top 10 and two in the Top 5. Not surprisingly, the Ivy League is a close second, with three in the Top 10. Colleges that excel at engineering--in fact, West Point awards only BS degrees--round out the Top 10, with West Point and MIT in the Top 5.

The Forbes ranking focuses on top schools' undergraduate experience ("Will my courses be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years?") and return on investment ("Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job?"). Forbes partners with the Center for College Affordability & Productivity to gather the relevant data from each school, which breaks down like this:

  • 30 percent: Average alumni salaries
  • 15 percent: Alumni success/prestige
  • 5 percent: Retention rates from first to second year
  • 22.5 percent: Student professor evaluations
  • 12.5 percent: Student loan debt at graduation
  • 5 percent: Loan default rate
  • 8.75 percent: Four-year graduation rate
  • 8.75 percent: Actual four-year graduation rate vs. predicted four-year graduation rate

The common traits among all the Top 10 schools include very low student-to-professor ratios, grants rather than student loans (or $0 tuition), high employment rates at graduation, and prestigious alumni. To be fair, all of these colleges are very prestigious schools, appearing at the top of other college and university rankings (e.g., U.S. News & World Report); but what's interesting is the order. Because the focus is on return on investment, low tuition and substantial financial assistance weigh heavily in Forbes' ranking, pushing more expensive, but top academically challenging, schools down the list. With regards to the new No. 1 each, we can chalk that up to their newbie status, as they are still working out kinks in their methodology.

At lunch today, I heard a family say that theForbes ranking is too general; and that without the breakdown by category--like the one U.S. News provides--prospective students are unable to compare top schools. I disagree. In fact, Forbes ranking is more specific than others, as they focus more specifically on experience and ROI, rather than a general sense of prestige. Moreover, Forbes plans (based on a call to action with a non-functioning link) to offer a do-it-yourself ranking database, so that readers can compare and re-rank schools based on what's important to them. Which is exactly what Professor Richard Vedder and other academic leaders are asking for from school rankings.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School