A New Way to Rank Colleges

Investing
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By Martin Weil, CFP

Learn more about Martin on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

With college education costs now a major financial planning challenge for all but the wealthiest households, students and their families can no longer assume automatically that a college education will be the “no-brainer” investment it has long been considered. Many students leave college these days with crippling debt levels they can ill afford to support.

In response, there is a new movement to rank colleges on more than just the basic quality of their education. Where the elite schools – Harvard, Princeton, Stanford etc. – once dominated all the “top college” lists, the new rankings feature some unexpected winners. Payscale ranks colleges based on ROI, the expected lifetime return on investment for the cost of an education. Harvey Mudd College tops their list with usual suspects Stanford at #10 and Harvard at #14. Washington Monthly features their “Best Bang for the Buck” rankings that use student loan default rates as a key metric. Amherst tops the WM all schools rankings.

Students, and parents, are also advised to note the sizable gap in average starting salaries for college grads – 2013 Engineering grads received an average $62,000 out of school while Humanities majors earned $37,000. The costs for the two degrees are the same, but the earnings discrepancies only increase over the life of a career.