For the first time, a public school is number one

After spending the pandemic year rethinking how we rate the best schools in the country, low-cost public universities have surged in our rankings, taking six of the top 25 places.

Through Christian Kreznar

PPublic universities can offer the most exceptional education to the widest range of students at the most affordable price. This is the message of the Forbes 2021 ranking of the best colleges.

For the first time in a nationwide ranking of America’s best colleges, a public school, the University of California at Berkeley, took the top spot (in 2009, West Point was at the top of our list, but military academies are slightly animalistic. different). Of the top 25 schools in the Forbes ranking, six are public, including three other UC, the University of Michigan and the University of Florida.

Harvard, which has been a perennial No.1 in the Forbes ranking and other closely watched lists, has fallen to No.7.

See the full list here.

How did it happen? We took advantage of the pandemic year to reassess (we suspended the list in 2020). As we watched Covid go upside down, we realized we needed to update how we measure America’s top colleges.

It is not enough to ask which schools offer the best return on investment. It is also important to assess the type of students they are educating and whether they are making themselves accessible to those who cannot afford high sticker prices. Even though, like Harvard, they promise to pay full freight for the low-income applicants they accept, are they accepting enough disadvantaged students for that promise to make sense?

UC Berkeley does a much better job than Harvard. At Berkeley, 27% of undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants, aimed at helping low- and moderate-income students pay for their college education. At Harvard, on the other hand, the share of Pell students is only 12%. (On average, 25% of students enrolled in our top 600 colleges received Pell scholarships.) The five military service academies in the United States, including West Point, are free and do not offer Pell scholarships, although students pay by serving in the military for five to eight years after graduation.

Our new methodology also uses better data on student outcomes. To set up the methodology, we partnered with higher education consultant Michael Itzkowitz, the architect of the Federal Government’s College Scorecard. Introduced in 2013 by the Obama administration, the Scorecard shows the net price paid by students at nearly 7,000 US colleges. The net price is the average actual cost of each school, taking into account grants, scholarships and tuition discounts. The scorecard also tracks the earnings of college graduates, using data from the IRS (it only counts students who received federal aid.)

For previous Forbes listings, we mainly pulled data on graduate salaries from PayScale, a 19-year-old Seattle-based company that collects salary information from users who want to access its database. PayScale information is self-reported and only counts a portion of graduates in the country. This year, we put more emphasis on the much larger College Scorecard dataset.

For the new methodology, Itzkowitz also shared a price / earnings ratio bonus that he created for Third Way, a Washington, DC think tank, using data from the College Scorecard for each school. To do this, he counted the average number of years it took for students to pay their tuition fees. He also paid special attention to this bonus for low income students and Pell. In recent years, Forbes has looked at student debt from a narrower perspective, looking only at the average amount of federal dollars borrowed by students at each school and the number of students at each institution who defaulted.

See the full methodology here.

Compiling the Forbes Top Colleges list is a multi-month undertaking. But we only rank a portion of US colleges and universities, only 600 four-year schools drawn from the nearly 2,700 such degree-granting institutions in the United States. This year’s ranking more accurately represents the schools that most American students attend. According to federal data, nearly 80% of the country’s 16 million undergraduate students attend public schools. Elite private institutions scored high again this year. Yale, Princeton, and Stanford are # 2, 3, and 4 on the list.

Top 25 American Universities


Editors: Christian Kreznar with Susan Adams, Caroline Howard; Reporters: Richard J. Chang, Madison Fernandez, Derek Saul; Editorial operations: Justin Conklin; Research: Susan Radlauer; Design: Fernando Capeto, Nick DeSantis, Alicia Hallett-Chan, Philip Smith; Photo: Merrilee Barton, Robyn Selman; Video: Kirsten Taggart, Riley Hallaway, Juliet Muir; Product: Nina Foroutan, Carlee Murray; Engineering: Roseanne Afaneh, Sarah Calande, Gustavo Faria, Dmitri Slavinsky; Quality Control : Noor Al-Aqtash, Majd Alzoubi, Ronak Ray.


See the full list of the best colleges

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