America's Best Colleges 2009

What these rankings don't measure are which schools offer the best return on your educational investment. So this year CCAP also compiled a best-value ranking, comparing school quality to cost. It's topped by Kentucky's Berea College, a remarkable institution where students incur no financial costs or debt. The public schools fare considerably better here as they typically cost less.

Twenty-three schools place in the top 100 of both the best colleges and best buys lists, including, for example, relatively unknown Wabash (No. 32), Centre (No. 14) and Salem (No. 67) colleges, as well as the better-known College of William and Mary (No. 48) and the California Institute of Technology (No. 3). Whereas the top schools on the best college list are concentrated in the East, the best value schools are disproportionately located in the South.

Of course, some readers may disagree with the way we construct our rankings or the weights we apply to the data. Or they may want to consider other variables, such as campus crime rates or SAT scores. So this year we also introduce a "do it yourself ranking" that customizes the process, allowing users to construct their own list according to personal tastes and preferences.

It is important to note that if a school appears on this list at all, that indicates it meets a certain level of quality. The last school on our ranking is by no means the worst school in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 4,000 college campuses in the U.S., and the CCAP ranks only the top 15% or so of all undergraduate institutions.

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