America's Top Colleges 2013

Do college rankings matter? With the price of a four-year education approaching a quarter million dollars, it's a no-brainer.

By Caroline Howard, Forbes Staff

Stanford UniversityWhen future historians of U.S. higher education look back to when the ground really began to shake, they may well pinpoint 2013. They'll see disruption in curriculum focus (towards STEM majors and away from traditional liberal arts) and mode of delivery (from campus to online). They'll find the vexing problems of runaway tuition costs and student loan debt, shrinking state funding and class enrollment, and a humbling job market for most graduates. But they'll also single out the rise of West Coast colleges. For the first time, the FORBES Top Colleges ranking has two California schools, Stanford University and Pomona College at No. 1 and No. 2. The best state school in America is University of California, Berkeley at No. 22. Here is what makes this shift so significant: It may splinter the hold of the East Coast Establishment colleges and open up a more diverse, accessible portfolio of best schools to students. The rapidly changing landscape in higher education is the theme of this year's Top Colleges. For the sixth year, FORBES has partnered exclusively with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP). What sets this list of 650 colleges and universities apart from other rankings is our firm belief in "output" over "input." We're not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank and SAT scores. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college.

More on Forbes: Full List: America's Top Colleges 2013

We look at factors that directly concern today's in-coming students and their families, who will be footing a bill that has multiplied into the six figures: Will my classes be interesting? Is it likely I will graduate in four years? Will I incur a ton of debt getting my degree? And once I get out of school, will I get a good job and find professional success? We pointedly ignore any metrics that would encourage schools to engage in wasteful spending.

Here, a quick peek at Top Colleges 2013:

Go West, young student: For the first time in the six years FORBES has produced this list, the top two schools are on the Pacific Coast. Stanford University takes the gold medal this year and silver goes to Pomona College. University of California, Berkeley leads the pack of of state schools at No. 22. All have high retention rates (98%, 99% and 96%, respectively) and their graduate's average starting salaries ($58,200, 49,200 and 52,000, respectively) outpace the $44,259 median income for 2012 college grads, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Not Harvard? Don't count the Ivies entirely out. To the contrary. The Ivy Leagues do very, very well; all eight make the top 20. Princeton, Yale University and Columbia University take Nos. 3 to 5. Harvard is No. 8 this year, dropping from No. 6 in 2012 and 2011, while University of Pennsylvania jumps up six spots to No. 11, Brown University moves up seven to No. 12 and Dartmouth moves up nine to No. 16. But the biggest winner of all is Cornell University, which leaps from No. 51 to No. 19. For millions of students, and not just Americans, Ivy League schools continue to hold unequivocal prestige and clout.

Public schools are on the rise: This year we have nine (including military schools) in the top 50. In 2012 there were eight, which was up from five in 2011. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor makes its first appearance in the top 50 at No. 30. Overall, public schools are doing better, with 23 in the top 100 and 51 in the top 250. This is the flip side to buying the Ivy League's reputation-at-any-price. Flagship state schools offer an excellent education for much lower tuition bills than their average private counterparts. As more students are seeking to hold down debt, public colleges and universities can and will be more selective.

On-time graduation: Haverford , Pomona and Swarthmore Colleges take the lead with impressive 91% 4-year graduation rates. At the bottom end of the scale is Colorado's Metropolitan State College (4%) and Texas Southern University (5%). Some schools, including Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., have 0% 4-year graduation rates, but their students work within a 5-year plan, so they can complete "co-ops," or time off school for internships or employment.

More on Forbes: America's Top Value Colleges

Going global: Almost all colleges offer opportunities to study abroad but some schools are going one or two step further. Case-Western Reserve (No. 89), for example, is part of the Global E3, which allows engineering students at member universities to attend overseas schools at home institution tuition. College of William and Mary (No. 44) offers a joint degree program with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. New York University (No. 56) was the first global network university, and has a comprehensive liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi.

Online classrooms: Learning has gone digital, and the savviest colleges are embracing the inevitable by offering not just courses but actual degrees online. Some of the largest are Penn State (No. 93), UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts' online education consortium with UMass Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell and UMass Medical School, and Arizona State University (No. 226), which enrolled over 8,000 students in spring 2013.

MOOCs are multiplying: The best known massive online open courses (MOOCs) were birthed in our top colleges: edX out of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 9); Coursera and Udacity out of Stanford. Now, voila, there's a stampede of other schools signing up. University of Chicago (No. 14) and the State University of New York system recently signed up with Coursera. San Jose State University (No. 272) aligned with Udacity, to mixed results. EdX is a leading with Wellesley (No. 23) and Rice University (No. 33), among many others, on board.

Who's Up, Who's Down: It's a fashion-model slender difference, but for the first time Princeton lands at No. 3 after long holding the No. 1 or No. 2 spot. Williams College, who has reigned as the top liberal arts college since 2008 -- not to mention No. 1 in 2010 and 2011 -- drops to No. 9 this year. The biggest movement was in Morehouse College, who jumped 235 spots to No. 285. CUNY, City College rose from No. 369 in 2012 to No. 137 this year. On the other hand, Wisconsin Lutheran College dropped to No. 537 from No. 216 and Thomas Aquinas College is now at No. 415 from No. 111 last year. Of the schools with religious affiliations, Brigham Young, sponsored by of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Pepperdine University, led by the Churches of Christ, made the top 100 (No. 75 and No. 100, respectively).

More on Forbes: America's Top Public Colleges

Schools of deception: This year FORBES instituted a new penalty to schools that have falsified data to the U.S. Department of Education, which we depend upon for our calculations. In the past two years, four schools have admitted to lying: Bucknell University, Claremont-McKenna College, Emory University and Iona School. They are being removed from our rankings for two years.
The Top 10:

1. Stanford University

The No. 1 school, Stanford University, was founded in 1885 by railroad magnate and politician Leland Stanford, who visited Harvard University and MIT to find out how to duplicate the Ivy League in California. Located in Palo Alto, Stanford is largely responsible for developing the region that would become known as Silicon Valley, the home to the world's highest tech companies and greatest innovators. The university is home to the world's largest stem cell research facility, and an entirely new campus for the business school, thanks to the $6.2 billion fundraising campaign that has gone down in the books as the most successful university fundraising campaign in history.

2. Pomona College

Pomona College is a private liberal arts college located in Claremont, California. Pomona is the founding member of the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven independent institutions all on adjoining campuses. Students can select from over 600 classes at Pomona plus a total of 2,500 through the Claremont Colleges. Pomona College has an impressive 91% 4-year graduation rate.

3. Princeton University

Princeton University is the fourth- oldest college in the nation; it was chartered in 1746. In 1783, the Continental Congress met at Nassau Hall in Princeton, which made it the capital of the U.S. for approximately five months. More than 750,000 people visit campus annually and the university generates about $2 billion in economic activity

4. Yale University

Founded in 1701, Yale University is the third oldest higher education institution in the U.S. Yale's student retention rate is 99%. Five U.S. Presidents were Yalies, including both Bushes '48, '68, Clinton '73 (law), Ford '41 (law), and Taft '78. The Yale School of Management was one of the first business schools to require all freshman students to study abroad and the Yale School of Architecture requires students to complete an overseas trip as part of every student's final-year studio course.

5. Columbia University

Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King's College, and it is the oldest institution of higher learning in New York state and the fifth oldest in the country. . Since 1901, Columbia University alumni, faculty, researchers and administrators have won 82 Nobel Prizes. Two of those recipients are former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and President Barack Obama in 2009. Columbia's Global Centers in Amman, Beijing, Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, and Santiago facilitate international collaborations, research projects, and study abroad.

6. Swarthmore College

Swarthmore College is a four-year, coeducational, private liberal arts college located in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The college has a tri-college consortium agreement with Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges; students can also take courses for credit at the University of Pennsylvania, 20 minutes away from campus. One-fifth of Swarthmore graduates go on to earn their Ph.D.

7. United States Military Academy

The United States Military Academy was established in 1802 and has consistently increased its number of cadets since to accommodate American military growth. The academy is a four-year, coeducational, public liberal arts college located in West Point, New York. Applicants are required to have a nomination from a member of Congress and, once admitted, have the opportunity to choose from 45 majors. At the end of their four years, students earn a commission into the United States Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. . Notable alumni include 2 presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant), 18 NASA astronauts and 74 Medal of Honor recipients.

8. Harvard University

Founded in 1636, Harvard University is the first institution of higher learning established in the United States. It is on the cutting edge of exploring new educational platforms with the foundation of the MOOC edX, co-founded with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which offers university-level classes online with no charge. The school has pioneered everything from organ transplant surgery to the catcher's mask. Harvard invests $166 million in financial aid per year, a 70% increase from 2007. In total, Harvard's faculty and alumni have won 46 Nobel Prizes.

9. Williams College

Last year Williams College ranked No. 2 on the FORBES list, and No. 1 in 2011. It was founded in 1793 as a men's college. Today this private, liberal arts college of about 2,000 students is co-educational with graduate programs in economic policy and the history of art. On campus, the Williams College Museum of art is home to over 13,000 artworks, including work by Edward Hopper, Sol LeWitt and Louise Bourgeois. The Chapin Library's collection include first prints of the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and George Washington's personal copy of the Federalist Papers.

10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the nation's premiere technological institutions. Founded in 1861, MIT's community includes 78 Nobel Laureates, 53 National Medal of Science winners, 41 MacArthur Fellows, and 27 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners. Located in Cambridge, MIT is part of an intellectual community that includes Harvard University (its co-founder of edX, the free online university-level course platform) and Wellesley College, a cross-registration partner. More than one-third of the nation's space flights have included MIT-educated astronauts. Notable alumni include architect I.M. Pei '40, billionaire brothers Charles Koch '57 and David H. Koch '62, Lawrence Summers '75, and Salman Khan '98, founder of Khan Academy

More On Forbes:

Full List: America's Top Colleges
America's Top Value Colleges
America's Top Public Colleges