This year it comes down to small, student-centric, liberal arts colleges vs. large, brainy, research-oriented universities closely associated with science, technology, engineering and math. The FORBES 7th annual Top Colleges ranking reveals higher education in flux, ongoing debate between the value of liberal arts vs. STEM degrees and a winning formula of high student satisfaction and graduation rates, alumni career success and low student debt.
At No. 1, Williams College is 2014′s leading higher education institution 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 10 finest schools in America are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pomona College, U.S. Military Academy and Amherst College.
While the elite liberal arts and STEM schools are neck-and-neck in the ranking race, their similarities are unmistakable: age, location, endowment and low debt for students. Colleges are like a fine wine. The average age of the top 100 colleges is a grand 170 years, with an average founding date of 1843. The grand ole dames are Harvard, which opened its doors in 1636, followed by the College of William & Mary (1693) and Yale (1701). Among the youngest in the top 100 are Brandeis University and Scripps College, established in 1948 and 1926, respectively.
Most are in the Northeast, followed by the West Coast, with the Midwest mildly under-represented (the top school in that region is Minnesota’s Carleton College at No. 16) and few great schools in the Sunbelt. Twenty-two schools control 50% of all $447.4 billion in college endowment money, with Harvard leading the pack, by far, at $32.3 billion, followed by Yale ($20.8B), University of Texas system ($20.5B), Stanford ($18.7B) and Princeton (18.2B).
Of the indicators expressing student satisfaction and school efficacy, the top 10 schools enjoy the highest retention rates (no less than 95%) and some of the most formidable 4-year graduation rates in the country: Williams at 96% and Yale and Pomona at 89%. Of all the schools on the list, Lamar University has the dubious distinction of a 54% first-to-second year retention rate, followed by Tennessee State University and Wright State University at 56%.
Top schools cost money – and give out money. Of the top 50, the average total cost is nearly $59,000 and institutional aid is granted to nearly 53% of the student body – with the exception of the U.S. Military Academies, which are tuition free. Besides valuable degrees, the Ivies gift their students with low loan burdens. Only 8% of Princeton students had to take out loans in 2013; Yale is at 9% and Harvard and Stanford at 11%. The lowest in the country is Missouri’s College of the Ozarks and City University of New York, Baruch College at 6%, while 96% of students take out loans at Pacifica University in Oregon and Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.
Many elite public schools are top schools at a better price than their private counterparts. 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 & Mary (No. 41) and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (No. 45).
Caroline Howard Forbes Staff