Top collegesThe best years of life are also among the most expensive. Choose with care.

Our annual ranking of the 650 best undergraduate institutions focuses on the things that matter the most to students: quality of teaching, great career prospects, graduation rates and low levels of debt. Unlike other lists, we pointedly ignore ephemeral measures such as school "reputation" and ill-conceived metrics that reward wasteful spending. We try and evaluate the college purchase as a consumer would: Is it worth spending as much as a quarter of a million dollars for this degree? The rankings are prepared exclusively for Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank founded by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder.

For the second year in a row, Williams College, a small, western-Massachusetts liberal arts school, has been named as the best undergraduate institution in America. With total annual costs adding up to nearly $55,000, a Williams education is certainly not cheap, but the 2,000 undergraduates here have among the highest four-year graduation rates in the country, win loads of prestigious national awards like Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, and are often rewarded with high-paying careers.

America's top colleges
America's top colleges

In second place? Princeton University, which boasts nearly nonexistent student debt rates due to one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation. Outside of Princeton and Harvard (#6), Ivy League schools fare relatively poorly, suggesting that their reputations might be a bit overblown. Yale (#14), Brown (#21) and Dartmouth (#30) crack the top 5%, but the other Ivies – Columbia (#42), Cornell (#51) University of Pennsylvania (#52) -- do not.

Because of our emphasis on financial prudence, the zero-cost military service academies rank highly. West Point, which topped the list two years ago, ranks third this time, thanks to outstanding teaching (#3) and high alumni salaries (#8), while the Air Force Academy (#10) and the Naval Academy (#17) glide easily into the top 20. Even the less prestigious academies – the Coast Guard (#97) and the Merchant Marine (#158) -- score well.

Outside of the academies, the highest ranked public school is the University of Virginia (#46) followed closely by the College of William and Mary (#49) and UCLA (#55).

The rankings are based on five general categories: Post Graduate success (30%), which evaluates alumni pay and prominence, Student Satisfaction (27.5%), which includes professor evaluations and freshman to sophomore year retention rates, Debt (17.5%), which penalizes schools for high student debt loads and default rates, Four Year Graduation Rate (17.5%) and Competitive Awards (7.5%), which rewards schools whose students win prestigious scholarships and fellowships like the Rhodes, the Marshall and the Fulbright.

In addition to the overall rankings, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity also prepares a "value" ranking which takes into account the overall cost of each school as relative to the quality of the education provided. Predictably, the service academies also dominate this "best-buy" list, nabbing the top three spots: West Point #1, Air Force Academy #2, and the Naval Academy #3. New York City's Cooper Union, which grants full scholarships to every student, snags the #4 value slot (#154 overall), with the College of the Ozarks (#6, #191 overall) and the University of Wyoming (#10, #361 overall) also giving students amazing value for their educational buck.

America's top colleges

Read More from Forbes:
The Top 200 Colleges in America
Best Buy Colleges
The Best Liberal Arts Colleges
The Best Public Colleges
All-Star Student Entrepreneurs
The Best Business Schools
More on Forbes Best Colleges
The Full List of America's Best Colleges

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Williams is an Ivy League school and has always been ranked number "1 among liberal arts colleges by Newsweek for decades. The difference in the schools cited in the article is immaterial as the general public associates brand names with excellence regardless of "value," however defined. The service academies were not ranked for many years but now regularly appear as best value and best "liberal arts" colleges. Too me this is a distortion of the ranking system and points to the folly of paying any attention to such articles--which appear all too frequently, further misguiding the public.

August 06 2011 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow, people. It is time that all of us stop taking offence at one survey’s biased opinion. While I am delighted to see Forbes acknowledge such a stellar institution (in my opinion!), I also think the survey could have used better metrics.

We need to remember that there is no absolute "best college" that fits every personality or career ambition.

Before forming your unfavorable opinions of Williams / liberal arts schools, I hope you first do some research on the subject.

All I know is that I went to Williams, and it was the perfect fit for *me*.

---Biology Major '09

August 06 2011 at 1:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Milan Moravec

University of California Berkeley in total denial on #70 ranking. Cal reputation is history. Like any addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward correcting it. University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom.

Recruits (using California tax $) out of state, foreign $50,600 tuition students who displace qualified sons, daughters of Californians from Cal.
Spends $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & vice chancellors work
(Prominent East Coast University accomplishing same 0 cost).
University accrues $150 million of inefficiencies over his 8 year reign.
Pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures.
In procuring $3,000,000 consultant failed to receive proposals from other firms.
Latino enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010(M Krupnick Contra Costa Times)
Best in nation university rank: # 70 Forbes
Academic rank: QS academic falls below top ten.
Tuition to Return on Investment drops below top10.
Cal most expensive public university 100 most expensive universities
NCAA absence of controls places basketball program on probation.

These are not isolated examples: it’s all shameful.

August 05 2011 at 8:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Williams and Amherst are both wonderful schools where teaching their undergraduates has primacy. I don't agree with putting so much emphasis on student debt and why wouldn't competitive academic awards not merit higher place in ranking?

August 04 2011 at 5:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David Huston

Hello! Has Forbes ever heard of "opportunity cost"? Serving at least four years in the military when other graduates--in normal economic times--are pursuing their careers with REAL first year salaries, is a HUGE opportunity cost that will continue to cost service academy graduates even more when they eventually rejoin the civilian work force. NOT such a great savings, after all. Get smart, Forbes!

August 04 2011 at 11:44 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to David Huston's comment
John in Queens

You're kidding right? I attended a normal state public university but the folks I've met who went to service academies are the brightest of the bunch. Not only that but they are the hardest workers, most mature, and get the job done. I'd hire the last grad from West Point before I'd hire the first grad from Williams. Not only that but service academy grads have major responsibility at 22 years old; most 22-year old grads I know are pushing paper and stuck in crappy jobs. Especially in 2011.

August 04 2011 at 5:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

University of Akron?

August 04 2011 at 6:08 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland was built to study the sub-atomic graviton particle I discovered.
The LHC is the largest most expensive ($10 bil) piece of scientific equipment ever made.
I graduated from Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Florida. BCC has their own 24 inch diameter on-campus telescope/observatory and the best science/technology program, better than MIT, better than Harvard.

August 04 2011 at 5:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

the head of the USA is a supposed "Harvard" liberal grad and what has that gotten the US = a minus Inter'l credit score

August 04 2011 at 3:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to heico97's comment
John in Queens

What is a minus inter'l credit score? Never heard that term in all my years.

August 04 2011 at 5:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They focuses on the things that matter the most to students: quality of teaching, great career prospects
Sounds great. but, Sorry kids only the republican rep kids and their super rich client kids will be able to afford them.

August 04 2011 at 1:42 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to preciag's comment

At Brown University, Ivy League school, 95% of the undergraduates self-identify as Democrats.

August 04 2011 at 5:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm attending Williams and am by no means "super rich" nor do I or my family identify ourselves as Republican. Last year, 100% of students who qualified for financial aid received it at Williams, and the average debt of the graduates who had received aid was $16,000.

August 05 2011 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

loser as i can't spell success

August 04 2011 at 12:06 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply