With student loan debt increasingly seen as a national, generational crisis, there's never been a more serious conversation about the value of a college education versus the cost.
So when Forbes set out to rank "America's Top Colleges" with the help of the Center for College Affordability, it set out to focus on "quality of teaching, great career prospects, high graduation rates and low-levels of debt" rather than academic reputation and selectivity.
Forbes' version of what makes a college a good value is less about tuition costs and financial aid and more about metrics of student success.
But when Houston's Rice University came in at No. 37 and the top of the list was populated by institutions like Princeton University, Williams College, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and Yale University — sparkling, top-tier programs, no doubt, but also places where annual cost can approach $60,000 per year — I was confused.
After all, even with my Owl bias aside (I went there), in the past year Rice was ranked by Kiplinger as the No. 4 Best Value in Private Colleges and earned the fifth spot from Princeton Review in the same category. (Though I should point out that Princeton and Yale also did well in Kiplinger and the Princeton Review).
But Forbes' version of what makes a college a good value is less about tuition costs and financial aid (which are a major factor in the other lists) and more about metrics of student success, including alumni listings in Who's Who in America and on the American Leaders List, alumni salaries according to Payscale.com, student evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com (seriously), freshman retention rates, alumni receiving doctorate degrees and students who receive nationally competitive awards.
Like the previous studies on what constitutes a collegiate best value, the four-year graduation rate and the average federal student loan debt (as well as the loan default rate) are also included.
Any school deserving of a "top college" ranking should satisfy each of these metrics, but overall the impression I get is that Forbes' data is skewed towards programs in which the student body is inherently more affluent and well-connected.
Considering only student debt without measuring costs and financial aid only tells us that the students who attend (or their parents) can afford the tuition, not whether that program is equally affordable to the average, well-qualified potential applicant.
That's why public schools — and their vastly reduced in-state tuition — barely make a blip on the Forbes' list, and how an internationally renowned research institution like The University of Texas could fall behind no-names like Westmont College in California and Dennison University in Ohio. At No. 104, UT barely comes in above Southern Methodist University (No. 105), which is a great school but certainly not a bargain.
What do you think of the Forbes rankings?