Size matters when it comes to higher education. That’s generally true when choosing between colleges and universities. Although the term “college” is used broadly to refer to post-secondary education in the U.S., it’s more narrowly defined as a smaller institution than a large university. It also may be one of several colleges within a university system. There are exceptions, however, such as Boston College, Dartmouth College and the College of William & Mary, which hold university status but prefer to retain the “college” designation in their names.
But there are other differences that set the two types of institutions apart. Unlike universities, which offer both undergraduate and graduate study programs, colleges primarily confer bachelor’s degrees and often don’t award advanced degrees. Class, campus and enrollment sizes are relatively smaller, which can be preferable for students who seek more intimate social settings and more focused attention from instructors. In the absence of research programs and facilities typically present at universities, many colleges also compete with more specialized areas of instruction, such as technical or agricultural colleges.
Smaller, however, doesn’t necessarily equate with inferior. For those considering attending a college, WalletHub compared more than 100 such institutions across 30 key measures to determine where prospective students can expect to receive top-notch education at the lowest price points. Our data set is grouped into seven categories, such as Student Selectivity, Cost & Financing and Career Outcomes. Metrics range from student-faculty ratio to graduation rate to post-attendance median salary.
Read on for our findings, a ranking by region and a full description of our methodology. For insight into the most important financial issues facing college students today, check out WalletHub’s expert Q&A below the ranking results. Separate comparisons for universities as well as for colleges and universities combined also are available on WalletHub.
Ranking of the Best Colleges in the U.S.
|Overall Rank (1=Best)||Percentile (99=Best)||College||State||Total Score*||'Student Selectivity' Rank||'Cost & Financing' Rank||'Faculty Resources' Rank||'Campus Safety' Rank||'Campus Experience' Rank||'Education Outcomes' Rank||'Career Outcomes' Rank|
|5||96||Harvey Mudd College||CA||72.04||2||107||32||78||23||6||1|
|12||89||College of the Ozarks||MO||66.89||18||2||94||10||34||44||89|
|15||87||St. Olaf College||MN||65.35||19||67||81||48||21||18||26|
|21||81||College of Wooster||OH||63.1||22||69||20||104||12||30||24|
|25||78||Virginia Military Institute||VA||62.67||42||64||35||39||39||31||3|
|29||74||Illinois Wesleyan University||IL||61.33||33||74||50||41||28||33||13|
Ranking by Region
|Region||Rank (1=Best)||Percentile (99=Best)||College||State||Total Score|
|Midwest||4||89||College of the Ozarks||MO||66.89|
|Midwest||5||87||St. Olaf College||MN||65.35|
|Midwest||8||79||College of Wooster||OH||63.1|
|Midwest||12||68||Illinois Wesleyan University||IL||61.33|
|Midwest||14||63||University of Minnesota--Morris||MN||60.33|
|Midwest||20||47||College of St. Benedict||MN||57.51|
|Midwest||24||37||University of Minnesota--Crookston||MN||55.83|
|Midwest||26||32||Lake Superior State University||MI||55.66|
|Midwest||28||26||Bethany Lutheran College||MN||54.98|
Ask the Experts
As students consider their college options, they must consider both school quality and cost. And with tuition rates rising every year, many students are likely to be more selective with their options. To advance the discussion on cost-related matters in post-secondary education, we asked a panel of experts to share their thoughts on the following key questions:
- Are Ivy League and other “name-brand” schools worth the high sticker price?
- What types of universities do you think provide the best return on investment?
- Given that the top 25 universities hold 52 percent of all endowment wealth, should the government consider taxing endowments of the wealthiest universities?
- Should college be tuition-free? How else can we work to make college more affordable?
- What tips do you have for a student looking to graduate with minimal debt and great job prospects?
- What are some strategies higher education institutions should take into consideration when resuming classes this fall?
Ask the Experts
In order to determine the best colleges in the U.S., WalletHub compared 113 such institutions across seven key dimensions: 1) Student Selectivity, 2) Cost & Financing, 3) Faculty Resources, 4) Campus Safety, 5) Campus Experience, 6) Educational Outcomes and 7) Career Outcomes.
We evaluated those dimensions using 30 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the best school performance and the most favorable conditions for undergraduate students during and after attendance.
Finally, we determined each school’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.
In constructing our sample, we took into account the following types of institutions:
- Sector of institution:
- Public, four-year or above
- Private, not-for-profit, four-year or above
- Carnegie Classification:
- Doctoral Universities: Very High Research Activity
- Doctoral Universities: High Research Activity
- Doctoral/Professional Universities
- Master's Colleges & Universities: Larger Programs
- Master's Colleges & Universities: Medium Programs
- Master's Colleges & Universities: Small Programs
- Baccalaureate Colleges: Arts & Sciences Focus
- Baccalaureate Colleges: Diverse Fields
- Baccalaureate/Associate's Colleges: Mixed Baccalaureate/Associate's
Institutions were considered colleges if they provide only undergraduate, or baccalaureate degree, programs, and universities if they offer graduate, including masters and/or doctoral degree, programs. (Separate rankings for universities as well as for colleges and universities combined also are available on WalletHub.)
Some institutions were excluded from our sample due to data limitations. Data collected is relevant to undergraduate students only.
Student Selectivity – Total Points: 25
- Admission Rate: Triple Weight (~12.50 Points)
- 25th Percentile of ACT/SAT Score: Full Weight (~4.17 Points)
Note: This metric refers to the figure below which 25 percent of students scored.
- 75th Percentile of ACT/SAT Score: Full Weight (~4.17 Points)
Note: This metric refers to the figure above which 25 percent of students scored.
- Share of Freshmen in Top 10 Percent of High School Graduating Class: Full Weight (~4.17 Points)
Cost & Financing – Total Points: 20
- Net Cost: Triple Weight (~12.00 Points)
- Availability of Employment Services for Students: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Note: This binary metric considers the presence or absence of “activities intended to assist students in obtaining part-time employment as a means of defraying part of the cost of their education,” as described by the National Center for Education Statistics, as follows:
- 1 - Yes
- 0 - No
- Student-Loan Debt: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Note: This metric measures the average amount of student loans awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduates.
Faculty Resources – Total Points: 10
- Student-Faculty Ratio: Triple Weight (~3.87 Points)
- Average Class Size: Triple Weight (~3.87 Points)
- Share of Full-time Professors among Total Full-Time Instructional Staff: Half Weight (~0.65 Points)
- Share of Full-Time Faculty: Quarter Weight (~0.32 Points)
- Faculty Staff Salary: Full Weight (~1.29 Points)
Note: This metric was adjusted by the cost-of-living index.
Campus Safety – Total Points: 5
- On-Campus Arrests: Full Weight (~2.50 Points)
Note: This metric was calculated using the following formula: Total On-Campus Arrests / Total Enrollment.
- On-Campus Crime: Full Weight (~2.50 Points)
Note: This metric was calculated using the following formula: Total On-Campus Crimes / Total Enrollment.
Campus Experience – Total Points: 5
- Share of International Students: Double Weight (~1.18 Points)
- Share of Students Living On-Campus: Double Weight (~1.18 Points)
- NCAA Membership: Full Weight (~0.59 Points)
Note: This binary metric considers whether the university is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as follows:
- 1: Member of NCAA
- 0: Not a member of NCAA
- Availability of Study-Abroad Program: Full Weight (~0.59 Points)
Note: This binary metric considers the presence or absence of a study-abroad program, an arrangement by which a student completes part of his or her college program studying in another country, as follows:
- 1: Study-abroad program available
- 0: Study-abroad program not available
- Gender & Racial Diversity: Full Weight (~0.59 Points)
Note: This metric is based on the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index method, a commonly accepted measure of market concentration that also works effectively as a general-purpose measure of diversity.
- Average Earnings from On-Campus Employment: Full Weight (~0.59 Points)
- Presence of Placement Services for Graduates: Half Weight (~0.29 Points)
Note: Assistance for students in evaluating their career alternatives and in obtaining full-time employment upon leaving the institution.This binary metric considers the presence or absence of placement services for graduates, as follows:
- 1 - Yes
- 0 - No
Educational Outcomes – Total Points: 20
- Retention Rate: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
Note: This metric measures the share of the fall full-time cohort from the prior year minus exclusions from the fall full-time cohort that re-enrolled at the institution as full-time in the current year.
- Graduation Rate: Double Weight (~10.00 Points)
- Credentials Awarded per Undergraduate Enrollment: Full Weight (~5.00 Points)
Note: “Credentials” refers to bachelor’s degrees.
Career Outcomes – Total Points: 15
- Return on Educational Investment: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
Note: This metric measures the ratio of starting salary for graduates to cost of education.
- Share of Graduates Offered Full-Time Employment Within 6 Months: Double Weight (~3.33 Points)
- Post-Attendance Median Salary: Double Weight (~3.33 Points)
Note: This metric measures the median earnings — 10 years after entering the school — of former students who received federal financial aid.
- Share of Former Students Outearning High School Graduates: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
Note: This metric measures the share of former students earning more than $25,000, or about the average earnings of a high school graduate aged 25 to 34, six years after they first enrolled.
- Share of Students Reducing Their Debt: Double Weight (~3.33 Points)
Note: This metric measures the share of students who have repaid at least $1 of the principal balance on their federal loans within three years of leaving school.
- Student-Loan Default Rate: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from National Center for Education Statistics, Council for Community and Economic Research, U.S. Department of Education, COLLEGEdata and PayScale.