Reality Check: US News Best Colleges Rankings

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When it comes time to apply for college, looking at U.S. News' best college rankings is a good place to start. But then you'll have to do your own research and calculations to determine if a school is really a good fit for you.

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U.S. News takes several factors into account when ranking colleges. Some of the criteria include student-faculty ratio, application requirements, financial aid policies, tuition, earnings after graduation and reviews from alumni.

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Highest Ranking National Universities

Schools in the U.S. News National Universities category offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master's and doctoral programs and are also known for producing groundbreaking research. While U.S. News ranks 388 universities in this category, the top five are not surprising.

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  1. Princeton University
  2. Harvard University
  3. Columbia University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Yale University

Best Value National Universities

When U.S. News selects their list of colleges with the best value, they consider several criteria including academic quality as relative to tuition.

It also considers the average discounted price for undergraduates and the percentage of full-time undergraduates receiving need-based aid. Finally, they factor in the percentage of undergraduates who receive scholarships and grants that they don't need to pay back.

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U.S. News ranks 179 schools in this list and the five best value colleges include some top-tier universities.

  1. Harvard​: Cost after receiving grants is approximately $14,897 with 52 percent of students receiving need-based grants.
  2. Princeton University​: Cost after receiving grants is $16,014 with 62 percent of students receiving need-based grants.
  3. Gallaudet University​: Cost after receiving grants is $11,493 with 89 percent of students receiving need-based grants.
  4. Yale University:​ Cost after receiving grants is $17,718 with 54 percent of students receiving need-based grants.
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology:​ Cost after receiving grants is $20,350 with 62 percent of students receiving need-based grants.

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Just because something is a perceived value doesn't necessarily mean it is.

Understanding the Actual Cost

Knowing what school gives you the best value is one thing but paying for it is quite another. Not everyone qualifies for financial aid. In fact, according to U.S. News, the percentage of all full-time undergraduates receiving need-based grants or scholarships is only 20 percent. U.S. News also doesn't factor in fees or room and board costs when determining value.

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Additionally, when planning for overall expenses, you must consider tuition increases over the four or five years you will be an undergraduate. This adds up fast.

It's key to determine a realistic estimate of what you will contribute to the bottom line. This will help you estimate a college's true total cost. The college board has a college cost calculator that will assist you.

College Loan Debt

A 2021 article from the Education Data website reports that the average student borrower is responsible for $39,351 in college loan debt. This affects 42.3 million adults.

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You should carefully consider college loan debt when making your college selection. Keep in mind that you'll be paying interest on your loans for many years and that defaulting on a loan will affect your credit score and can potentially lead to wage garnishment, or in the case of private student loans, legal action.

Keeping It Real

Just because something is a perceived value doesn't necessarily mean it is. Lists of best colleges are certainly good for reference, but you have to do your own math to find a college that not only matches your academic needs but also realistically fits your budget and will be worth it to you in the long run.

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