For as long as high school seniors have been applying to college, the debate has centered around the question of which is “best." For many, best means “most exclusive” — preferably Ivy League. The FORBES Top Colleges ranking is our effort to break the archetype and open up a more diverse, accessible portfolio of best schools for all students. And at this point, with average tuition costs closing in at $40,000 and cumulative student loan debt reaching $1.2 trillion, understanding what makes a top college has never been more important to students and their families. The best of life of life are often the most expensive. Choose with care.
The leaders of the 2014 FORBES Top Colleges ranking generally fall into two categories: small, student-focused, liberal arts colleges and brainy, research-oriented large universities. The best schools have a laser-like focus on their mission. At No. 1, Williams College is the top school in the U.S., followed by Stanford University and Swarthmore College. The first Ivy to show, Princeton University, comes in at No. 4. Two other Ivies make the top 10: Yale University at No. 6 and Harvard University at No. 7. Rounding out the ten finest schools in America are MIT, Pomona College, U.S. Military Academy and Amherst College.
While the elite liberal arts and STEM schools are neck-and-neck in the college ranking race, other forces that are consistent in first-choice schools are age, location and endowment. Colleges are like a fine wine. The average age of the top colleges is close to 200 years. Most are in the northeast, with the Midwest mildly under-represented (the top school in that region is Carleton College in Minnesota at No. 16) and few great schools in the Sunbelt. Twenty-two schools control 50% of all college endowments, with Harvard leading the pack, by far, at $32.3 billion as of 2013.
[More from Forbes: Best Public Colleges]
Top schools cost money — and give money. Of the top 50, the average total cost is $58,642 and institutional aid is granted to nearly 53% of the student body — with the exception of the U.S. Military Academy, which is tuition-free. All the service academies made the top 50. Many elite public schools are top schools at a better price. At No. 37, California has the top-placing state school in the U.S., University of California, Berkeley, and is followed by University of Virginia (No. 40), College of William and Mary (No. 41) and University of Michigan (No. 45). Eight U.C. schools made the grade this year, as well as 11 state colleges.
For the seventh year, FORBES has partnered exclusively with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). What sets our calculation of 650 colleges and universities apart from other rankings is our firm belief in “output” over “input.” We’re not all that interested in what gets a student into college and we don’t focus on selectivity metrics, such as high school class rank and SAT scores. We use National Center for Education Statistics data, as well as PayScale, as sources. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college. (See CCAP’s full methodology here.)
We look at factors that directly concern today’s incoming students (and their families) who will be footing a bill which has multiplied into the six figures: Will my classes be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job and be a leader in my chosen profession? We pointedly ignore any metrics that would encourage schools to engage in wasteful spending.
1. Williams College (Williamstown, MA)
This year Williams College ranks as the No. 1 Top College in America, jumping up one spot from No. 2 in 2013. It was founded in 1793 as a men’s college and women weren't admitted until 1970. This elite liberal arts college is part of the “Little Three,” along with Wesleyan University and rival Amherst College. Billionaire alumni include Rich Product’s Robert Rich Jr. ('63, $2.4 billion) and Tiger Global’s Chase Coleman, III ('97, $1.4 billion). Other prominent alumni include composer Stephen Sondheim ('50), investor Herb Allen ('62), director of the Museum of Modern Art Glenn Lowry ('76), and the late George Steinbrenner ('52).
2. Stanford University (Stanford, CA)
Stanford University is a private research university in Stanford, CA. There are over 5,000 externally sponsored research projects at Stanford with a total budget of over $1.3 billion. Stanford’s endowment, valued at over $18 billion, is one of the largest in the world. The university has produced numerous luminaries, including one U.S. president, four U.S. Supreme Court justices and business leaders like Steve Ballmer, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Marissa Mayer. Stanford has also been home to some of the world’s most successful athletes, including John McEnroe, John Elway, Tiger Woods, Michelle Wie and Andrew Luck.
3. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA)
Swarthmore College is a private liberal arts school in Swarthmore, PA. The school is a member of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford and students can cross-register for courses at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. About 66% of students participate in undergraduate research or independent creative projects each summer. The college is also one of the leading producers of Ph.D. students in the U.S. — nearly 20% of the student body goes on to complete a doctoral program, which is the third highest rate in the nation.
4. Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
Chartered in 1746, Princeton University is one of the oldest colleges in the country. Nearly a dozen current faculty members are Nobel Prize recipients. The Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, part of Princeton’s 10-library system, is home to over 7 million books, 6 million microfilms and a collection of rare books, prints and archives. The Princeton University Art Museum contains more than 80,000 works. Princeton has produced a large number of luminaries, including U.S. presidents James Madison and Woodrow Wilson, First Lady Michelle Obama, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, HP CEO Meg Whitman and celebrated author F. Scott Fitzgerald. FORBES Editor-in-Chief Steve Forbes graduated from Princeton in 1970.
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the nation’s premier technological institutions. Notable alumni include architect I.M. Pei ('40,) billionaire brothers Charles Koch ('57) and David H. Koch ('62), Lawrence Summers ('75), and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan ('98).
6. Yale University (New Haven, CT)
Granted its charter in 1701, Yale is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the country and one of the top institutions in the world. Located in New Haven, CT, Yale academics are divided into Yale College (the undergraduate school), the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and 13 professional schools. The university’s library is one of the largest in the country and houses more than 12 million volumes.
7. Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
Founded in 1636, Harvard University was the first institution of higher learning in the U.S. Harvard’s faculty and alumni have won 46 Nobel Prizes, and the school recently hired former executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson, to teach undergraduate courses. The university’s list of notable attendees and alumni is extensive: President Barack Obama, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, actress Natalie Portman, cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, NBA star Jeremy Lin and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The current president of the university is FORBES No. 33 Power Woman Drew Gilpin Faust.
8. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)
Pomona College is a private liberal arts college in Claremont, CA. Established in 1887, it is the founding member of The Claremont Colleges, a consortium of neighboring schools. Pomona emphasizes interaction between students and faculty: The school boasts an 8:1 student-faculty ratio and 68% of faculty members invited students to their homes during the past academic year. Notable alumni include former Walt Disney Company executive Roy E. Disney and former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller.
9. United States Military Academy (West Point, NY)
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation that established the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, NY. The academy is a coeducational, public liberal arts college where applicants must have a nomination from a member of Congress to be admitted. At the end of their matriculation, students earn a commission into the U.S. Army as 2nd Lieutenants. Prominent alumni include two presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, and over 20 NASA astronauts and 70 Medal of Honor recipients.
10. Amherst College (Amherst, MA)
As one of the top small private liberal arts schools in the country, students frequently work one-on-one with faculty, who are among the nation’s leading scholars and recipients of awards from National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, to name a few. Prominent alumni include author Dan Brown, former president Calvin Coolidge and economist Joseph E. Stiglitz.
Full List: America’s Top 100 Colleges 2014
More from Forbes: