Another Random List of “Best Value” Colleges

Getting a good value for attending college is on the mind of most prospective students and their families, and as a result, numerous publishers of college rankings have come out with lists of “best value” colleges. I have highlighted the best value college lists from Kiplinger’s and U.S. News in previous posts, as well as discussing my work incorporating a cost component into Washington Monthly’s rankings. Today’s entry in this series comes from the Princeton Review,  a company better known for test preparation classes and private counseling, but they are also in the rankings business.

The Princeton Review released its list of its “Best Value Colleges” today in conjunction with USA Today, and the list is heavily populated with a “who’s who” list of selective, wealthy colleges and universities. Among the top ten private colleges, several of them are wealthy enough to be able to waive all tuition and fees for their few students from modest financial backgrounds. The top ten public institutions do tend to attract a fair number of out-of-state and full-pay students, although there is one surprise name on the list (North Carolina State University—well done!). More data on the top 150 colleges can be found here.

My main complaint with this ranking system, as with other best value colleges lists, is with the methodology. They begin by narrowing their sample from about 2,000 colleges to 650—what they call “the nation’s academically best undergraduate institutions.” This effectively limits the utility of these rankings to students who score a 25 or higher on the ACT, or even higher if students wish to qualify for merit-based grant aid. Student selectivity is further awarded in the academic rating, even though this has no guarantee of future academic performance. Much of the academic and financial aid ratings measures come from student surveys, which are fraught with selection bias. Basically, many colleges handpick the students who take these surveys, which results in an optimistic set of opinions being registers. I wish I could say more about their methodology and point values, but no information is available.

The top 150 list (which can be found here by state) certainly favors wealthy, prestigious colleges with a few exceptions (University of South Dakota, University of Tennessee-Martin, and Southern Utah University, for example). In Wisconsin, only Madison and Eau Claire (two of the three most selective universities in the UW System) made the list. In the Big Ten, there are some notable omissions—Iowa (but Iowa State is included), Michigan State (but Michigan is included), Ohio State, and Penn State.

The best value rankings try to provide information about what college will cost, and whether some colleges provide better “bang for the buck” than others. Providing useful information is an important endeavor, as this recent article in the Chronicle emphasizes. However, the Princeton Review’s list provides useful information to only a small number of academically elite students, many of whom have the financial means to pay for college without taking on much debt. This is illustrated by the accompanying USA Today article featuring the rankings, which notes that fewer than half of all students attending Best Value Colleges take on debt, compared to two-thirds of students nationwide. This differential isn’t just a result of the cost of attendance, but instead the student’s ability to pay for college.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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