Flickr / john walker.

With the summer drawing to a close and the school year fast approaching, college ranking reports are being bandied about by such reputable names as Forbes and Time's Money Magazine, each claiming to have found the "best" among the hordes of institutions of higher learning.

In a way, each of these publications is correct – according to its own set of criteria, at least. And, with more rankings scheduled to show up in print within the next month or so, how can the fresh-faced college shopper know which school to choose?

The answer, of course, is to dig in and start reading, all the while weighing how each college is rated alongside your own personal educational goals. Here are a few of the top-rated schools for both this year and last, along with some of the reasons each merited such an illustrious ranking.

1. Williams College, Williamstown, MA
This private, liberal arts college in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts is Forbes' top pick, using metrics such as graduation rates, student satisfaction and career success as the primary measurements in its most recent college ratings.

Though liberal arts degrees have taken a real beating in the jobs marketplace lately, graduates of Williams College seem to be the exception. Not only do 91% of graduates finish their degrees timely, but they also enjoy starting salaries in the $50,000 per year range.

2. Babson College, Babson Park, MA
Money Magazine has also chosen a private Massachusetts college as its best college choice, considering how factors such as affordability and educational quality impact graduates' ultimate earning power. According to Money's calculations, Babson has taken the Bachelor of Science degree in business and focused exclusively on giving its students one of the best returns on investment around.

Babson's average five-year salary of $59,700 is certainly nothing to sneeze at, despite a rather hefty degree cost of nearly $200,000. The school's concentration on the world of business has also earned it U.S. News and World Report's No. 1 ranking for entrepreneurship, as well.

3. Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA
When it comes to engineering, it's hard to beat this small, private California college. Payscale has ranked Harvey Mudd College No.1 for the best return on educational investment two years in a row, and it's no wonder – graduates make annual salaries topping $73,000 after only two years on the job.

As for affordability, Harvey Mudd's 2012 graduating class left the school with an average loan debt of $24,194 – right in between Babson's average of $31,918, and Williams College's rather low $12,749. No doubt, the engineering school's high earnings outlook helps take some of the sting out of its graduates' student debt load. 

Even if you are considering a career in a field other than the liberal arts, business, or engineering, rankings such as these give overwhelmed students an excellent place to begin their college research. Choosing where to spend your college career is never a simple process, but having an abundance of information right at your fingertips can help make that decision a lot less stressful.

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