The best college in America has an 11:30 p.m. curfew. It doesn't allow alcohol in the dorms, which must be kept meticulously clean. Students have to keep their hair neat, their shoes shined, their clothes crisply pressed. They also receive a world-class education, at no cost, and incur no debt -- except for a duty to their country.
The college, of course, is the U.S. Military Academy, or West Point, and it tops our second-annual ranking of America's Best Colleges, compiled by Forbes and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In this report, the CCAP ranks 600 undergraduate institutions based on the quality of the education they provide, the experience of the students and how much they achieve.
West Point rose to the top spot on our rankings after placing sixth in 2008. (For more on West Point, see "How West Point Beat The Ivy League.") The move illustrates strong performances on the part of all the service academies, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, which came in seventh, and the U.S. Naval Academy, which came in 30th place. Last year's No. 1 school, Princeton University, moved to No. 2 in the rankings, followed by the California Institute of Technology, Williams College, Harvard and Wellesley.
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Other schools generally considered to be America's best still rank high -- Amherst (No. 8), Yale (No. 9), Stanford (No. 10) and MIT (No. 11). But our approach to evaluating performance also yields some hidden jewels. Among liberal arts colleges, Centre (No. 14) and Union (No. 26) rank in the top 30 of all institutions. Boston College (No. 16) far outperforms Dartmouth (No. 98), Duke (No. 104) and Cornell (No. 105). And among flagship state universities, Illinois (No. 132) outranks Big Ten Conference rival (No. 200) Michigan.
To our way of thinking, a good college is one that meets student needs. While some college rankings are based partly on school reputation as evaluated by college administrators and on the amount of money spent, we focus on things which directly concern incoming students: Will my courses be interesting and rewarding? Will I get a good job after I graduate? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree?
To answer these questions, the staff at CCAP gathered data from a variety of sources. They based 25% of the rankings on 4 million student evaluations of courses and instructors, as recorded on the Web site RateMyProfessors.com. Another 25% is based on post-graduate success, equally determined by enrollment-adjusted entries in Who's Who in America, and by a new metric, the average salaries of graduates reported by Payscale.com. An additional 20% is based on the estimated average student debt after four years. One-sixth of the rankings are based on four-year college graduation rates -- half of that is the actual graduation rate, the other half the gap between the average rate and a predicted rate based on characteristics of the school. The last component is based on the number of students or faculty, adjusted for enrollment, who have won nationally competitive awards like Rhodes Scholarships or Nobel Prizes.