Believe it or not, the business of ranking the best colleges has gotten so big that it now constitutes a mini-industry. For a long time, the only numbers that prospective students and school administrators focused on — for better or worse — were the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the best colleges and universities.
But times have changed. Many parents saw both their retirement and college savings plans devastated by the Great Recession. Compounding the loss was the fact that many pulled their investments out of the market right as it was starting to pick back up — leaving them in the unenviable position of trying to figure out a way to pay for college.
Apparently, the college-ranking industry is tuned in with the pulse of the general public, because college rankings based on the best "bang for your buck" are showing up everywhere. As the New York Times reported this past week, the following organizations have each come out with a "best college values" list this year: The Princeton Review, Washington Monthly, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Alumni Factor, Kiplinger's, Payscale, and — of course — U.S. News & World Report.
Having read through all eight of these reports, there were certain themes and groups of schools that continually stood out — even though each of the publications had very different methodologies. Rather than give you five single schools that represent the best value, and lead you to believe that you're doomed if your child doesn't make it in, here are the five groups that continually pop up at the top of the lists.
5. Ivy League schools
If you were hoping this wouldn't include those elitist organizations that show up at the top of every type of list, think again. While the average four-year sticker price for Ivy League schools hovers between $220,000 and $250,000 per year, there's more to the story.
After all the financial aid is taken into consideration, the average students at these universities left school with under $20,000 in debt. That's not bad, considering the total costs; but it gets even rosier when you consider that Ivy grads usually have very high earning power in the work force.
The Big Three of Princeton, Yale, and Harvard are usually highest on the lists.
4. SCIAC schools
SCIAC stands for Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. As a whole, the conference is made up of nine schools nestled along the Pacific coast. Three of these schools continually appear as the best college values: Pomona, Claremont McKenna, and Cal Tech.
Based on academics alone, Pomona and Claremont are ranked the fourth and ninth best colleges in the country, respectively, by U.S. News & World Report; Cal Tech comes in at the tenth best national university. Like Ivies, these aren't easy institutions to get into, with no school having an enrollment greater than 2,000.
But if your student does gain acceptance, look beyond the four-year sticker prices, which are as high as $240,000. A full 100% of demonstrated financial need is met at all three schools, and the average student graduates with $18,000 in debt.
3. NESCAC schools
Moving on from the warmth of California, the next group is stationed in the cold, snowy climate of the northeast. The New England Small Collegiate Athletic Conference boasts some of the best four-year, private, liberal arts schools in the nation. Because of generous financial aid policies, it also is home to some of the best college deals in the nation.
In truth, the conference is actually home to what's probably the best deal in the nation: Amherst College. As Washington Monthly explained: "[the school] chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college."
It doesn't hurt that Amherst was ranked the second-best college in the country by U.S. News, right behind NESCAC fellow Williams, which also shows up in many of the "best value" lists.
2. Your in-state universities
It may sound like a rather boring and obvious finding, but sending your child to your in-state institutions can represent enormous cost savings. Take the University of North Carolina, for example. The in-state sticker price over four years will run a total of $73,000. But for those who choose to attend the school as an out-of-state resident, those costs balloon to $160,000. In other words, there's a 54% discount to attending the school as an in-state resident.
Of course, the numbers are different for every state. A couple of large public universities were consistently mentioned as best values: the Universities of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, State Universities of New York (SUNY) schools, Brigham Young University, and Appalachian State University.
1. Service academies
How would you like to send your son or daughter to a top-ranked school with a tuition of ... $0? That's what you get when you choose the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
Of course, once your kid is finished, he or she will owe more than a few years to that service organization. And the armed forces aren't for everyone.
That being said, after a few years of serving the country, graduates will have excellent resumes to help them in the real world.
Start making smart financial decisions now to help pay for college
Millions of Americans have waited on the sidelines since the market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, too scared to invest and put their money at further risk. Yet those who've stayed out of the market have missed out on huge gains and put their ability to pay for college in jeopardy. If this sounds like you, in our brand-new special report, "Your Essential Guide to Start Investing Today," The Motley Fool's personal finance experts show you why investing is so important and what you need to do to get started. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.