Kiplinger's Best College Values: Are They Really All That?

college campusKiplinger's Personal Finance released its annual list of the 100 best values in public colleges and universities this week -- and, naturally, universities and regional publications nationwide wasted no time trumpeting their inclusion on the list.

Still, students might wonder just what makes a school a "best value," at least according to Kiplinger's.A few schools are clearly doing something right in Kiplinger's eyes. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finished at the top of the list for the 10th straight year, and second-place finisher University of Florida, Gainesville, held down the same spot last year. So what goes into these rankings, and how do schools earn their spots on the list? And, more importantly, should students put as much stock in Kiplinger's list as college officials and education writers seem to?

In order to compile the annual list of the best values in public colleges, the Washington, D.C.,-based publication starts with Peterson's/Nelnet data on more than 500 different public schools. It then sorts the competitors by quality measures like: admissions rates, incoming freshmen's test scores, and four- and six-year graduation rates.

Although these academic criteria carry the most weight in the rankings, editors later factor in cost data--including tuition, fees, room and board, and financial aid for in- and out-of-state students. They then re-rank the schools with the financial factors weighed in.

The process certainly sounds complex, and Kiplinger's seems pretty confident about the objectivity of the results. Its website claims that "unlike other college rankings, our list is based entirely on measurable criteria.... Neither our opinion nor anyone else's affects the calculation."

So does Kiplinger's provide a "one-stop shop" for students looking to attend an affordable public college? Not necessarily, at least according to Ian Welham, a New Jersey-based, certified college-funding adviser and the co-founder of Complete College Planning Solutions. While Welham praised aspects of Kiplinger's rankings, he also cautioned prospective college students against putting too much stock in a single roundup of the best public college values--at the exclusion of doing their own research.

"Lists like this are useful as a starting point," Welham said. "Too many college families base their college decision on 'sticker price,' which is a big mistake. So to the extent that [Kiplinger's list] opens their eyes to the 'net cost'--the out-of-pocket cost--it's extremely valuable. The only downside is that some people will turn this into their bible and make decisions without doing any further research. That could be costly."

Welham commended Kiplinger's for factoring in both in-state and out-of-state tuition costs, and for considering how many students actually graduate within four years. However, he noted that the list doesn't examine what percentage of graduating seniors obtain viable employment, or how need-based aid breaks down at the schools considered--whether, for instance, colleges on the list are offering needy students aid money in the form of grants, or costly loans that they'll have to pay back later.

Finally, Welham noted, students should never forget the great intangible in the college debate: Whether a school provides a good fit for the student in terms of their major and future plans.

"On the surface, that may not seem like a value criterion," he said. "But it is. For example, if my student changes her mind about her major--which is more likely than not--will she be able to pursue her second choice at the same school? Transferring credits can be a hassle, and transferring schools can be costly."

Last year, when CBS's MoneyWatch.com turned the tables on a number of prominent college ranking systems and "rated the rankers," so to speak, Kiplinger's Best Values garnered a decidedly mixed three-star review out of a possible five stars. MoneyWatch editors criticized the same lack of depth in financial-aid analysis that Welham cited, pointing out that one "value" school, Pomona College, offered copious money in free grants for low-income students, but provided no merit scholarships for middle- and upper-income students. MoneyWatch also went a bit further in its criticism than Welham, saying in addition that Kiplinger's lists "don't really measure the quality of education."

Still, as Welham noted, Kiplinger's Best Values lists provide at least a starting point for prospective college students to begin assessing the possibilities and price points of a college education--and more information never hurts. But if the criticisms of those same lists should tell aspiring collegiates anything, it's probably that "value" can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different students.

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