Behind the ‘Top Colleges’ rankings

Princeton University scored the No. 1 spot on Forbes’ list.

When Forbes Magazine officially releases its “America’s Top Colleges” list this week, it will, as always, be met with controversy.

“People are always going to get angry any time you try to rank institutions. And people get angry ridiculously high up the list,” says Michael Noer, the executive editor of Forbes. “We rank 650 schools. There’s about 2,500 undergraduate schools in the country. Anything in the top 50 is a stunningly good school.”

And while the Forbes methodology is more rigorous than most, Noer concedes that there are unavoidable statistical biases in the rankings.

“Large public institutions do relatively poorly on our list. The reason is that anytime you have, say, 60,000 students, you’re going to have a reversion to the mean,” says Noer. “If you have that many students, some of them are going to do well in life, and some of them are going to do crappy. You can’t do this without creating certain biases.”

Outside perspective

For perspective on the Forbes list, we contacted college admissions expert Steve Cohen, author of “Getting In: The Zinch Guide to College Admissions and Financial Aid in the Digital Age.”

“The Forbes ranking is a vast improvement over the U.S. News and World Report approach.  It considers things that are truly important. There are, however, two problems: First, the inputs are not quite there. For example, ‘Who’s Who’ and are not very good measures of post-graduate success. Similarly, the four-year graduation rate is a false measure. Kids who change majors — and that is 70 percent of all undergraduates — find it almost impossible to graduate in four years.”

Forbes’ top five colleges

1. Princeton University
2. Williams College
3. Stanford University
4. University of Chicago
5. Yale University

Ranking system
Forbes’ list utilizes a system developed by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. Here are the five most heavily weighted data points:
Student evaluations from
Salary of alumni from
List of alumni in “Who’s Who in America”
Average federal student loan debt load
Actual four-year graduation rate


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