Ballooning student debt and lean job prospects leave many questioning whether college is a worthwhile investment. The simple answer: yes.
In 2012, full-time workers with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $414 more per week than those with only a high school diploma, according to median earnings data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. College graduates with a four-year degree were also nearly twice as likely to be employed.
Rising tuition makes choosing the right college more important than ever. The 2014 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings, released today, are designed to help students and parents make an informed decision.
[Video: 2014 Best Colleges rankings.]
This year's installment offers data on nearly 1,800 colleges and universities, including tuition, acceptance rates, class sizes, graduation rates, average debt of graduates and much more. Eligible schools are ranked on up to 16 different factors, each weighted for importance.
U.S. News updated the methodology for the 2014 rankings to reflect the current state of college admissions and better measure student outcomes. High school class rank, a figure included on fewer student transcripts, is less important in college admissions decisions than in years past. As a result, class standing received significantly less weight in this year's rankings.
We also increased the weight of graduation and retention rates for national universities and liberal arts colleges and extended graduation rate performance, which measures the difference between an institution's predicted and actual graduation rates, to regional schools.
Despite these changes, there was little movement at the very top of the rankings. Princeton University took sole possession of No. 1 among the U.S. News National Universities – schools that emphasize research and offer bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. programs – breaking a tie with Harvard University. Harvard didn't fall far, though, claiming the No. 2 spot.
Williams College tightened its grip on the top spot among National Liberal Arts Colleges, schools that focus on undergraduate education and award at least 50 percent of their degrees in fields such as English, economics or sociology. The private Massachusetts school claimed sole possession of the top spot four years ago, breaking a tie for No. 1 with Amherst College, and has held it since. Amherst now ranks second.
The top Regional Colleges, schools that grant fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines, also held firm this year. Cooper Union in New York, High Point University in North Carolina, Taylor University in Indiana and Carroll College in Montana retained their No. 1 ranks in the North, South, Midwest and West, respectively.
In the rankings of Regional Universities – schools that offer many bachelor's, some master's and few Ph.D. programs – Villanova University in Pennsylvania held onto its No. 1 rank in the North, while North Carolina's Elon University moved from No. 2 to tie Florida's Rollins College for top billing in the South. In the Midwest and West, Creighton University in Nebraska and Trinity University in Texas held onto their No. 1 positions in their respective regions.
While many of the highest-ranked schools only shifted one or two places, if at all, it's a different story outside of the top 20.
Pennsylvania State University, for instance, climbed nine spots in the National Universities rankings, moving from a tie at No. 46 to No. 37, where it tied with Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Pitzer College in California also gained ground among National Liberal Arts Colleges, moving from a tie at No. 43 to No. 35.
College choice isn't just about rankings, though. Cost is also a major factor for most students. President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of finding a school that offers a good value during his recent college affordability bus tour. Students can use the U.S. News Best Value Schools rankings to determine which colleges will give them the most bang for their buck.
This ranking looks at three variables – the ratio of quality to price, the percentage of all undergrads who receive need-based grants and the average discount off a school's total cost – to determine which institutions offer the best value in each ranking category.
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Schools on this list don't always appear affordable, so students need to look beyond sticker prices. Vassar College in New York, the No. 6 Best Value School in the Liberal Arts Colleges category, listed 2012-2013 tuition, room and board, fees and expenses at $59,860, but awarded need-based grants to nearly 60 percent of students that year. The average cost after receiving those funds was $19,470, an average discount of $40,390 off the total cost of attendance.
Other exclusive U.S. News rankings and lists include A-plus Schools for B Students, Top Public Schools and schools with the highest four-year graduation rate.
Regardless of whether students are aiming for an Ivy League education or want to attend a more affordable public university, the Best Colleges rankings provide critical information to help narrow the search.
Looking for full rankings information? Access the U.S. News College Compass to find all published data points, including student debt and employment statistics.