The annual ranking of Best Colleges published by U.S. New & World Report (U.S. News) receives plenty of press coverage when it’s released in September. Perhaps as a result, the U.S. News rankings are relied upon by many students and parents in their search for the right college. Other publications with Best Colleges rankings include Forbes, Princeton Review, Money, Kiplinger, New York Times Higher Education, and the Wall Street Journal.

To develop their rankings, publishers use proprietary algorithms that reflect their judgment on what contributes most to the quality of a college education. There is another type of ranking that focuses on the relationship of the quality of a college’s education to its cost. The term for these analyses is “Best Value Schools”. The publications listed above plus a few others, including College Factual, College Raptor, Niche, and College Simply, rank colleges based on their cost/benefits ratios and return on investment (ROI).

Aspiring college students often find the rank of a college’s value to be helpful. The publishers conduct research and process information from current, reliable databases. They retain on-staff experts with college recruiting experience. Nevertheless, students and parents are advised to use rankings as only one of many sources of information. The best college for a student is the one that fits them best not by criteria set by publishers but by criteria that they set themselves.

What is most helpful in comparing colleges and prices is not the value rankings themselves but the analytic models used to produce the rankings. Each publisher uses its own methodology to weigh the factors they consider most important. Three Best Value Schools methodologies, U.S. News, Niche, and Kiplinger are described below.

U.S. News & World Reports

To determine which public and private colleges offer the best values, U.S. News integrates academic quality after calculating actual cost less financial aid.

The U.S. News 2024 rankings for Best Value Schools are based on the four metrics below:

1. Academic quality (overall score in the U.S. News 2024 Best Colleges rankings) relative to the average discounted tuition paid by 2022-23 full-time undergraduates after receiving need-based scholarships and grants. Weight = 50%.

2. The percentage of all full-time 2022-23 academic year undergraduates receiving need-based scholarships or grants. Weight = 20%

3. Of the 2022-23 full-time undergraduates who received need-based aid, the percentage of them who received a grant or scholarship, which is aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. Some schools that seem generous with aid provide much of it as loans or work study, which must be repaid or earned by students and are different from financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants. Weight = 20%

4. The average discount from the school’s total 2022-23 Cost of Attendance (COA) — viewed as the “sticker price” for full-time undergraduates. Weight = 10%

Colleges are only compared with other colleges in the same category. There are 10 discrete Best Value School categories.. This organizational scheme is based on the Carnegie Classifications and is comprised of categories for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges plus Regional Colleges and Regional Universities. The latter two are split into North, South, Midwest and West.

Best Value rankings are intended to facilitate the comparison of colleges across state lines. For public institutions, each ranking indicator used 2022-23 out-of-state tuition data together with the percentage of out-of-state students receiving need-based scholarships or grants. Likewise, the statistics used to measure affordability use averages, but the actual amount that a student pays will vary based on a college’s policies and a student’s circumstances.


Niche is an American company headquartered in Pittsburgh that runs a college review and ranking website. It was founded 2002 as a publisher of print guidebooks about colleges but is now an online-only resource.

Niche’s Best Value Colleges analysis is based on net price, alumni earnings, graduation rates, and student debt using data from the U.S. Education Department (ED) along with millions of reviews from students and alumni conducted by Niche. The factors and weights used by Niche are shown below in Table A.

Table A
Factors Used by Niche in Best Value Colleges Ranking

Factor Description Weight
Average ROI by Age 30

Average ROI for graduates, considering the differential between earnings at age 30 and the cost of college.

Economic Mobility Index Measure of economic status change for low-income students. 12.5%
Average Net Price (ANP) Average cost after financial aid for students receiving grant or scholarship aid, as reported by the college. 7.5%
Graduation Rate (6-year) Percent of undergraduate students who graduate within six years. 7.5%
Loan Default Rate Loan default rate of students who graduated within the last three years and have not deferred. 7.5%
Median Earnings 1 Year After Graduation Median earnings of graduates working 1 year after graduation 7.5%
Median Earnings 10 Years After Graduation Median earnings ten years after enrollment. 7.5%
Average Loan Amount Per Year Average value of student loans taken on by full-time undergraduates. 5.0%
First Year Increase in Earnings Change in earnings between first and second year of employment for graduates who are working. 5.0%
Full-Time Retention Rate Percent of full-time, first-time students enrolled the prior year that re-enroll the next year. 5.0%
Percent Earning Over 150% of the Poverty Line, 2 Years after Graduation Percent of graduates working and earning over 150% of the poverty line two years after graduation. 5.0%
Percent Employed within 2 Years after Graduation Percent of students who report working and not attending school 2 years after graduation. 5.0%
Percent Employed within 6 Years After Graduation Percent of students who report working and not attending school ten years after enrollment. 5.0%
Student Surveys on Value Niche survey responses scored on a 1-5 scale on quality of preparation of graduates. 5.0%
Student-Faculty Ratio Total full-time undergraduate students per full-time undergraduate faculty. 2.5%


To develop its ranking of Best Value Schools, Kiplinger analyzes data on 1,200 public and private four-year schools from Peterson’s Undergraduate Database, then integrates its own research results. First, they narrow the list based on academic quality metrics. Next, they rank each school using cost and financial aid measures. Quality criteria account for 55% of total points and cost criteria account for 45%.

The categories considered by Kiplinger are described below:

1. Competitiveness

In this category, Kiplinger includes admission rate (the percentage of applicants offered admission) and yield rate (the percentage of students who enroll out of those admitted). The first rate demonstrates selectivity, and the second shows the ability to compete for accepted applicants. Kiplinger also considers the percentage of incoming freshmen who are high scorers on the SAT or ACT because high achievers enhance the academic environment.

2. Graduation Rates

Regarding quality, Kiplinger rankings give the most weight to the four-year graduation rate in order to reward colleges that help students get undergraduate degrees on time and within budget. To reflect the benefit that comes from earning a degree, even if it takes more than four years, they award points for five- and six-year graduation rates and award extra points to schools that do an above-average job of graduating students who have high financial need.

3. Cost and Financial Aid

Regarding cost, Kiplinger gives the most points to schools with low total cost (tuition, fees, room and board, and books). In the com¬bined rankings, they use out-of-state costs for public schools to provide an apples-to-apples comparison with private schools. Kiplinger ranks public institutions according to in-state costs and out-of-state costs separately.

adds points to schools that reduce cost through free need-based aid (scholarships and grants but not loans or work-study) and to those schools that reduce cost through non-need-based aid. They also compare the average financial aid award for first-year students with that of all undergraduates, rewarding schools that don’t give generous awards to freshmen only to reduce or eliminate them in later years. Some schools fail to cover the gap between the FAFSA’s Student Aid Index (SAI) and the financial aid that they provide to students. Kiplinger rewards schools with the highest percentage of need met. They also give points based on the percentage of students without need who receive financial aid.

4. Student Indebtedness

Schools that provide enough financial aid to keep the average debt of students to below the national average are awarded by Kiplinger. The percentage of students who take out loans is also a factor. The lower the number, the higher the score.

5. Salaries of Graduates

forecast what a graduate’s compensation will be a decade after starting college, Kiplinger uses the median earnings of graduates who started at a particular college 10 years earlier and who received Federal financial aid. The figures come from the ED. They don’t consider whether the graduating employees went on to a graduate school, nor do they reflect salary differences according to major. Because of these limitations, Kiplinger doesn’t include salary in their calculation for rankings.

Two Top-Tier College Rankings That Focus on ROI

The decision that their child will attend an top-tier college calls for a substantial financial commitment from even affluent American families. Tuition, room, board, and fees for a bachelor’s degree at the best public institutions can exceed $100,000 for in-state students. Their elite private counterparts, both national universities and small liberal arts colleges, cost over $300,000 for an undergraduate degree.

These families, in order to be confident of their decision, seek more information on ROI than do low- and middle-income families because they have more choices. Two publishers, Money and Forbes, conduct research and release annual rankings that make ROI central to their methodologies. Money’s special annual issue is titled “Best Colleges for Your Money” and the Forbes publication is their “Best Value Colleges” edition.

The methodologies of these two are different from those used by other publishers, which take into account academic considerations such as admissions selectivity and yield that are not, according to Money and Forbes, germane to the most important outcome of a college education — lifetime earnings. Hence, Money and Forbes focus on whether an institution provides a substantial, long-lasting, economic value to its graduates.

Money and Forbes use similar criteria to compute their rankings. Money analyzes graduation rates, tuition charges, family borrowing, alumni earnings, and other metrics. The criteria are organized into three categories, Educational Quality, Affordability, and Alumni Success. Each category is weighed equally as one-third of the total score.

The Forbes methodology is based on the set of factors and weights shown below:

  • Alumni Earnings – 20%
  • Net Price – 20%
  • Net Debt – 20%
  • School Quality – 20%
  • Timely Graduation – 10%
  • Percent of Pell Recipients – 10%