Many rankings and websites try to highlight the "Best Value" or the "Best Deals" or the "Best Buys" in a college education. All are trying to answer roughly the same question: Where can I get a good education without spending a fortune? Our Best Colleges for the Money rankings is designed to help you find affordable options for your higher education, by considering factors many other rankings do not. Here's how our calculations differ from many others.
The length of time it takes the average student to graduate is factored into the cost
Taking the annual cost to attend college, and multiplying it by four years is great -- IF it will actually take you four years to graduate.
For a significant number of college students enrolled at higher ed institutions nationwide, it takes longer than that. In fact, if you look closely at many stats, the graduation rate reported is a six-year graduation rate. That means, if it takes a student six years to graduate, two more years than what the average high school senior and their family thinks that it will, the college still gets to claim it as a 'successful graduation'.
What this fails to consider however, is that those students had to shoulder an entire extra year or two worth of expenses. These extra years sometimes exceed financial aid awards, depending on your package. This can deliver an unexpected hit to student and family finances, requiring an increased reliance on student loans at best, and an increased college drop-out rate at worst.
The take away?
- Pay attention to how long it takes the average student to graduate at each college or university. No one likes to think they won't graduate in four years, but statistically speaking, the odds are not 'forever in your favor'. In fact, according to the Department of Education, fewer than 40% of students graduate college within four years.
- Carefully review all financial aid offers, and ask questions about any caps in dollar amounts, or caps on the amount of time within which you must complete your degree.
- Be as honest with yourself as you can, and understand college costs, and therefore 'value', based on your particular circumstances.
No assumptions are made for in-state or out-of-state costs
Residents living within a specific geographic location often benefit from discounted in-state college tuition, which can have a significant impact on what you pay to attend an institution. However, assuming that a student will be paying either in-state or out-of-state tuition can often mask the truly best value for a particular person.
Yes, for students lucky enough to live in a state with a great college system that is highly subsidized by taxpayer money, chances are good your best value is going to come from an institution within your state (ie. New York or California). However, that is not the case for all states.
Furthermore, even in states with a strong public higher education system, there are often great values among the private schools that should not be overlooked, especially if you are someone likely to receive decent financial aid (i.e. Massachusetts).
College Factual's default value rankings allow you to see the numbers for all schools at both the nationwide and regional levels, based on the demographic out-of-state costs, to allow for proper cross-state comparisons.
Then, you can also look at the best value in each particular state, based on discounted in-state tuition rates where applicable.
Colleges are not rewarded for inflating their price and offering financial aid to compensate
Some best college value rankings will take the full 'sticker price' of a school, subtract the average amount of financial aid awarded to students, and then use that 'discount rate' as a key factor in determining the best value. The problem with this approach is that it rewards the wrong behavior.
Quality colleges that provide affordable pricing at the outset make it easier for families to understand the costs involved for the long haul. These colleges, when offering an equal educational experience, should not be looked at as 'a lesser value' than schools that are inflating their costs simply to create a large discount, thereby making their bottom line offer look better. A college or university that routinely offers a large amount of aid to qualifying students, does not necessarily equate to this being a low-priced option or a good educational value for the many.
Colleges are not boosted in the ranks due to a high percentage of students receiving aid
It doesn't matter what percentage of students receive aid, if the college or university is still too expensive for the level of educational quality being offered. A high percentage of students receiving aid doesn't mean those students received a lot of actual money, or that the resulting net price was low. Furthermore, it completely ignores all those students that will not be receiving aid.
Again, it rewards the wrong behavior similar to the 'discount rate' method noted above. If a college or university increases their prices, but then offers a large number of students even a small amount of financial aid in return, that is not a better value than an equal quality institution that simply has lower prices to begin with, but offers fewer students financial aid as a result.
What matters at the end of the day is how much you will have to pay overall, and what level of quality education you are going to receive in return for that payment.
Cost isn't calculated on only those students receiving financial aid
Many rankings assume a net price that is based solely on those students receiving aid, rather than an average net price for all students. That's great if you are someone that will be getting an average amount of aid, but every single student's financial situation is different. There are some that will receive no aid at all, and many others who will receive lower than average.
To account for this diversity, we calculate the net price for students receiving the average amount of aid, as well as those that will not receive any aid. Those are then combined to come up with an overall average net price for the institution. This is what is used for the default value rankings that show up throughout the site, as we feel that this is a truer and fairer representation of the college or university as a whole. That said, if you know whether you are someone that is likely to get aid or not, we also offer the ability to look at the value rankings from each of those perspectives.
In the future, we plan to offer the ability to further customize the estimated aid you are likely to get, per school, to come up with personalized value rankings based on your unique circumstances.
The focus is on identifying great value, not just fair value
The combined issues discussed above prevent many 'real' college deals from being identified. This is why many other value rankings are dominated by the same schools that sit atop rankings of the best quality colleges overall. Many very high quality colleges and universities, even if they are the most expensive, can still offer a 'good' or 'fair' value. After all, an institution that is the best in the nation, is often priced accordingly.
What our value rankings try to identify is when you are truly going to get a higher quality of education than what you will pay for, based on what comparable institutions are charging. These 'best bang for your buck' colleges can often be overlooked. You will find top schools that are moderately priced in this group, but also many second tier schools that are substantially under-priced relative to the quality of education they offer, and offer a better deal.
The poor values are identified along with the good ones
It is certainly important to call out the good values, but we think it is equally important to note the poor values as well. What does 'poor value' mean in the context of our rankings? It means that the school is low in quality and is low in affordability (it's expensive). It also means that there are other, similar or better quality schools that cost less. Call us crazy, but we think students and parents should know when a school they are considering fits the description of low quality and overpriced, and be given the tools to identify alternative choices.
National vs. Regional Colleges and Universities
You won't find artificial segments in our rankings
Some rankings break all the schools into many different sub-lists. Each school can only exist in one list and thus, you are unable to compare schools across these various lists. For example, if you want to compare a small four-year liberal arts college with a larger research-focused university, you are not able to do so.
Some would argue that comparing "National" institutions to "Regional" colleges is an unfair comparison because they are different types of schools. That almost sounds plausible until you realize the "National" designation just means that the school has a Ph.D. program (in any major, not necessarily your own) and "Regional" simply means they don't. In addition, the "Regional" schools are often broken into even smaller regions, making it impossible to see comparisons for the same 'types' of schools nationwide.
Does all this segmentation really make sense when all you want to know is how one institution stacks up against another?
It doesn't to us either, other than as a tool that allows more colleges to bubble to top of their respective lists, thus making more institutions look like they rank well. That's a nice marketing hook for a website if you want to get more colleges and universities promoting your rankings because they did well, but it doesn't serve the families and students who often blur the lines drawn by institutions when selecting a college.
Rankings are presented the way they should be: all schools, side by side. You can decide whether you want to consider only those institutions that offer a certain level of degree, or those that are located in a particular region or not.
College selection is one of the biggest decisions a family will make. We believe you should have all your options laid out on the table for a proper comparison that will ultimately lead to the best decision.
You See the Pros, the Cons, the Good and the Bad
The value for all colleges is estimated, not just the top institutions
Many rankings only include the top 10 or the top 100 'best' schools. Some rankings go a bit further, but still stop short by only including institutions in the top 50%. Many colleges and universities are excluded from these lists, which leaves the many students considering these schools in the dark as to what kind of value for the money those institutions offer.
Quality is definitely an important element to determining value. However, simply ignoring half the schools that fall below a certain quality threshold does not help the many students whose only options may include these colleges and universities. Even for those who can get accepted at higher quality colleges and have the financial means to attend, there are some really good bargains out there among some "average" quality colleges. Some students and families might feel the money saved attending a good value college of average quality is better saved for other things -- perhaps graduate school, or a starter home, or to support themselves while launching a business or building experience through an unpaid internship.
By estimating the value for all colleges, we allow students to fully see all potential options.
Quality is determined via our Best Colleges rankings
Last but not least, most rankings use some set of quality rankings or score to make sure quality is a component of value. We do the same. In addition, the quality of a college is heavily weighted - it represents 50% of our rankings. And, our Best Colleges rankings, which the quality score is based on, includes important outcomes-based factors not often seen elsewhere - such as salary calculations and default rates on student loans -- which can help determine your chances of earning a decent living upon graduation. You can read more about our Best Colleges rankings here.
The College Factual Difference
With a focus on compiling sought-after data and innovative tools such as its customizable College Combat feature, which allows students to compare institutions side-by-side on a variety of factors, College Factual puts the college rankings process in the hands of students and parents and not those of the institutions or national publications.