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Colleges with the best value? New rankings upend conventional wisdom (+video)

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To even rank, schools had to have a student body with at least 20 percent receiving Pell Grants (offered to low-income students); have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent, meeting or exceeding the graduation rate that would be predicted based on the composition of the student body; and have a loan default rate among graduates of 10 percent or less.

Out of 1,572 colleges and universities in the broader rankings, just 349 made the bang-for-the-buck rankings. No. 1: Amherst College in Massachusetts, followed by Queens College, CUNY (City University of New York); Baruch College (CUNY) in New York; California State University in Fullerton; and the University of Florida in Gainesville.

This is a measure "that ought to be of great interest to the vast majority of students going to college but not going to the Ivy League," says Kevin Carey, director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program in Washington, who was the guest editor for the rankings. "Where do I have a good chance of graduating and won’t break the bank?"

The problem with ranking systems like U.S. News's, Mr. Carey says, is that they're somewhat vague and self-reinforcing – "everyone knows that's a good school because smart people go there, and smart people go there because it's a good school" – and also irrelevant to the bulk of students, who aren't going to an elite institution.

Ranking institutions instead by their larger value to society – in terms of their commitment to social mobility, research, and service – yields far different results, he says – ones that are more useful to many Americans.

So the University of California schools, for instance, fare unusually well in the national rankings, with four of the top 10 institutions – despite the fact that in recent years California has slashed aid to state schools and they, in turn, have raised tuition. The rankings reflect the UC system's quality of research along with its commitment to enrolling low-income students, Carey says.

At UC-San Diego, 47 percent of students receive Pell Grants. At Riverside, 57 percent do. Contrast that with the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, where just 6 percent of students get Pell Grants.

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