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By Kim Clark
September 13, 2016

With the growing number of college rankings, it can get confusing to try to figure out which colleges offer the best education—or which publishers the best rankings.

But experts such as Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, say that students and parents can benefit from looking at the reputable rankings, and focusing on the ones that address “what matters most to you.”

If you want to find out which colleges are the most elite, he says, the U.S. News & World Report rankings are a good starting point. If you’re concerned about the costs and return on your investment in higher education, he says, MONEY’s rankings might better serve your interests. (Here is a chart comparing the top 10 of each of the rankings.)

To make it easier for families to see the differences between MONEY’s and U.S. News’s just-released 2017 college rankings, here is a comparison chart showing some of the key factors considered by each. In addition to its overall “Best Colleges” ranking, U.S. News also posts a “Best Value” college ranking. The difference between that and its overall list is the addition of a measure of need-based aid sufficiency. U.S. News does not take into account other financial measures such as student or parent debt, or alumni earnings.

In addition, MONEY has launched a new build-your-own college rankings tool that allows anyone to screen out colleges that don’t match their interests and adjust the weights of several factors to create their own personalized college rankings.

Factors MONEY U.S. News
Quality
Graduation rate Y Y
Graduation rate after accounting for student body characteristics Y Y
Freshmen retention rate N Y
Opportunities for personal attention from professors Y Y
Academic preparation of students (test scores) Y Y
Admissions selectivity N Y
Faculty salaries N Y
Overall spending on undergraduates N Y
Reputation (as reported by college officials and high school counselors) N Y
Career services staffing Y N
Affordability
Typical student borrowing Y N
Parent borrowing (from federal PLUS program) Y N
Overall aid generosity (including merit aid) Y N
Need-based aid sufficiency Y N*
Outcomes
Alumni earnings Y N
Alumni earnings adjusted for students’ majors Y N
Alumni’s record of paying back student loans Y N
Alumni’s perception of the “meaningfulness” of their jobs Y N
Alumni donations to the college N Y

* U.S. News publishes a separate “Best Value” college list in which need-based aid is a factor.

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