What Makes a 'Best Value' College?

In the field of college rankings, there is currently a whole slew of lists that claim to cover "best value" schools. Each one is a little different. So what qualifies as value when it comes to the skyrocketing cost of college and exactly what it buys students?

This is a question I've been trying to answer for years. Back in 2003, in The Princeton Review's Best 351 Colleges, we published our first attempt at a "best value" ranking list: Best Academic Bang for Your Buck. It was comprised of 20 schools, and based on students' assessment of financial aid, our Financial Aid Rating, and our Academic Rating. Great academics, great price (if you qualify for financial aid). Since then, students' and parents' perspectives on "value" have expanded beyond cost and classroom--they see tuition as an investment in the future, and like investors, they want to see a return on that investment. Graduate outcomes and alumni salary figures must be taken into account to provide applicants and parents with a clear sense of value.

Many "best value" college ranking lists incorporate this data in one way or another -- we revised our own best value methodology last year using alumni salary information from PayScale.com, and I'm thrilled with the results. The newest edition of The Princeton Review's Colleges That Pay You Back is out today, and I couldn't be more pleased to tout the affordability, academics, and alumni outcomes of these 200 schools. In fact, five of the 20 schools on our original Best Academic Bang for Your Buck list still rank in the top 50 Colleges That Pay You Back: Brigham Young University, New College of Florida, Rice University, University of California - Berkeley, and University of Virginia. Kudos, folks!

So what sets The Princeton Review's Colleges That Pay You Back apart from all those other "best value" college lists? We go beyond cold hard cash. Students invest more than money in their educations -- they invest time, energy, and passion. And a list that only defines "value" by graduate salary is likely to skew heavily towards schools known for their Science/Tech/Engineering/Math (STEM) programs. That's awesome if you know you want a career in one of those fields, and any STEM subject is a practical choice of major -- and we include the percentage of STEM major grads on each school profile in our book. But not every college applicant is ready to commit to a profession at 18. And what about students who know they want to work in a field that might be less lucrative than engineering, like education or social work? To choose our Colleges That Pay You Back, we analyze more than 40 factors -- covering not only alumni career information and financial aid, but also academic experience and the opinions of 136,000 students. As a result, these 200 schools are diverse in academic offerings, size, region, and type -- and we break out additional ranking lists, like "Best Schools for Making an Impact," based on student responses to survey questions covering community service, student government, sustainability, and student engagement on campus.

(For the full list, visit PrincetonReview.com or pick up Colleges That Pay You Back 2016.)

When it comes to a college education, and a career path, value isn't just about pennies in your piggybank. It's about the experiences you have, the community of which you're a part, finding meaning in your studies and professional pursuits -- and so much more.