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Williams College: America's new best college

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(Read caption) Williams College, a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, is America's best college, according to a new listing compiled by Forbes magazine.

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Forget Harvard and Yale. America’s best college is one you may not have heard of: Williams College.

The 2,200 students of this private liberal arts college nestled in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts enjoy a 7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio and one of the lowest average student debt loads in the nation, according to Forbes magazine, which released its list of top US colleges Thursday.

The ranking suggests that high-cost colleges and universities are among the best in overall value, in terms of how well graduates perform in the job market, and how much debt they leave with: all but one (the United States Military Academy in West Point, which is No. 4) in the Top 10 are private institutions with annual tuitions hovering around $36,000.

Many of these schools have made great efforts to reduce the level of debt incurred by their students. Williams and Amherst, for instance, have replaced all student loans from the colleges with grants. Harvard will cover all tuition and room and board costs for families who earn $60,000 or less.

These measures have helped keep the typical graduation debt of students at these schools relatively low – between around $2,000 and $5,500. (The Military Academy is free.)

Forbes, which worked with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity to compile the list, says it sought to determine which colleges best met students’ needs, rather than which came with the best reputation. This is the third year the list was created.

The lists’ creators considered graduates' success in their chosen career field; their average salaries; the schools' retention and graduation rates; and student evaluations of their professors and classes, as well as the cost of the institution and amount of debt upon graduation.

Second on the list was Princeton University, and third was Amherst College, another tiny liberal arts school in western Massachusetts (and Williams’s rival). Rounding out the top five were the United States Military Academy at West Point, which dropped to No. 4 from the top spot last year, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at No. 5.

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Harvard University, which is ranked at No. 1 on the well-known US News and World Report college ranking of best national universities, was No. 8 on Forbes’s list. Yale, which comes in third on the US News ranking, came in at No. 10 on this list.

Forbes's top-ranked public institutions have tuition rates that hover around $7,000 per year for in-state students.

At the top public institutions in the country, like the University of Virginia (No. 1), the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (No. 3), and the University of California at Berkeley (No. 4), costs have risen because of cuts to higher education budgets from states. University of California students, for instance, will see a 32 percent increase in tuition and fees this coming school year.

While tuition hikes have been especially high this year, the increases are part of a larger trend. Between 2002 and 2006, the share of educational costs paid by tuition jumped from about one-third to nearly one-half at the nation’s public universities, according to a report by the Delta Project, an organization that tracks spending in higher education.

The United States Military, Air Force, Naval ,and Merchant Marine academies, as well as Cooper Union, in New York City, cover 100 percent of students' tuition. They were ranked the five best-value colleges in the nation, according to Forbes's rankings.

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