Many like to think of rankings as something immutable, handed down from the heavens, radiating the light of truth. In reality, rankings can be quite subjective, since they depend, on a large part, on the criteria used.
For decades now, US News and World Report has been this light from the heavens, decreeing which colleges are the “best”. Yet, if the factors that make up their equation are tweaked, with return-on-investment weighted more than, say, the number of professors who are Nobel Prize winners, a different picture of the best colleges starts to emerge.
Such a picture is the result of a recent survey by Forbes, which is challenging the US News’s preeminence as our college ranker. First off, Forbes puts a lot more emphasis on return-on-investment, or how much money you can make back on the amount you invested in college. Given that many are still burdened by loans ten years after graduation (Forbes says that the debt on college tuition currently stands at 1.2 trillion), focusing on return-of-investment makes more sense than looking at pure market prestige. But remember, Forbes is only tweaking the equation not reconfiguring it. So in the top ten you’ll still have your colossi of cachet Stanford and Harvard, but you’ll also have relatively unheard of schools, such as Pomona and Williams. While it might be tempting for many to be lured by a big name school, even one that didn’t crack the top 25, if being out of the red after college is your goal, you’ll might have to forgo the titillation of name-dropping and instead put up with comments such as, “How do you pronounce that?”
Part of the obscurity of some of these colleges comes from the fact that they are small liberal arts schools. Unlike US News, which has a discrete category for these schools, Forbes wisely puts the liberal arts toe-to-toe with the Ivies. That way, you can make a decision that is not about type of school but overall quality and, in this case, return-on-investment.
Before packing off to a rural area in New England (many liberal arts colleges favor such bucolic settings), remember that liberal arts colleges tend to be for a certain type (and I don’t necessarily mean liberal). Small classrooms with heady intellectual discussions are typical fare. The ethos of learning for learning’s sake pervades. So if you like to be a wallflower in a large lecture hall, cramming from books to get your ‘A’, then a state university might be a better fit. But if that “learning for learning’s sake” caught your attention, you have a whole cosmos of possibilities to choose from. I know, you might be thinking, “I’ll like my experience there but nobody will hire me afterwards”. If so, then chew on this: Pomona, small liberal arts school in southern California, snagged the #1 spot, outdoing such heavyweights as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard on a list that focuses on return-on-investment.
While I encourage you to read the entire rankings and to learn about any college that interests you (the write ups are all engaging), here is a quick pick of some schools that you might have not even heard of but pack both a whopping return on invest and high quality education.