Aug. 6, 2009 -- 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.
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.
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.