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This fall, as numerous college rankings hit the bookstores, I was curious to find an answer to the question: “What is an ‘excellent school’?” after a parent, prospective student or college recruiter sifted through all of this material.

There has been debate among admissions officers and college presidents over the value of ranking one school over another based on statistics, and those debates are valid—to a point. The rankings mean little to the best of the best; Harvard, for example, will not lose applicants for being the #2 school. They mean little to quality schools that charge little or no tuition, such as the military service academies, flagship state universities and specialty institutions like Cooper Union and Webb Institute. These schools will always fill their classes with excellent students, regardless of their ranking.

Rankings could however, mean something to families that have to make a choice between similar regional or national schools that appear below the best of the best, for instance a top regional university versus an excellent national university that’s listed in the top 100. They might also help applicants make a choice between the flagship state university in their home state and similar schools in other states that charge low out-of-state tuition and room and board rates. Being a Rutgers graduate from New Jersey, I’m especially sensitive to this; the University of Delaware and West Virginia University have been popular destinations for Garden State residents for decades.

Rankings appear to mean a lot to the presidents of some schools; high rankings can convince trustees to increase their investments in facilities and scholarships to build-up the school’s reputation. A boost from 75th to 50th means more to an up-and-coming national university than it does for a school that has a long-cemented international reputation. These ambitions are not necessarily bad; a nation can never have enough quality schools.

I did my own “kitchen table exercise” with the most recent U.S. News college guide after sifting through the published rankings. I set my own standard of excellence, based on the reported graduation and student retention rates. My thought was that the best schools are the ones that do the best to attract, retain and graduate their entering classes.

Graduation and retention rates are not perfect, but they’re the results by which admissions and student services are best measured. An excellent school has rigorous academics, but does all it can to help their students succeed; it serves no one to make college an intense “boot camp” experience to whittle a class down to an elite few. High retention and graduation rates are more likely to help attract alumni support and interest from graduate schools and employers than poor ones.

I set my bar high: an 85 percent freshman retention rate and a 65 percent six-year graduation rate. I dislike the idea of using a six-year graduation rate, but there are legitimate reasons: leaves of absence, military or missionary service, cooperative educational opportunities (combine school and work) and interest in multiple degree programs being examples.

In my kitchen table exercise, I found that 265 four-year schools met my standard. Among the nation’s 262 Large Research Universities—these are the large public and private universities--104 schools met or exceeded the 85-65 standard, including all of the top 72 in the rankings. Among 266 National Liberal Arts Colleges, 105 met or exceeded both numbers. There were also 37 regional universities and 8 baccalaureate colleges that met or bested both marks, as well as 11 specialty (fine arts, performing arts, engineering and business) schools.

By my standard, the list of “excellent” schools is larger than some parents might think. It does include the most selective public and private institutions, but also 84 schools that admitted more than 65% of their applicant pool for this year’s entering class. But there is another side to this analysis: the verbal and math SATs. The higher the school ranked in U.S. News, the higher the range of the scores. A combined 1,050 to 1,100 on the verbal and math SATs put most applicants near the bottom quarter of the pool in most of my excellent schools. Excellent grades might offset the test scores at all except the best of the best, but it’s best to prepare for the tests.

What could I conclude from this?

The best of the best schools deserve the accolades they receive, but there are other schools equally deserving of the same attention. Ask me to name names. Some might surprise you.

Are these the only numbers a family should consider?

They’re a start. If financial concerns are paramount, then ask about the average tuition increases and student loan indebtedness for the recent graduating classes. Also ask about the school’s bond rating; it reflects the school’s ability to earn income and cover its costs, while keeping tuition increases as low as possible. Both of these measures are important, because scholarships and grants do not always increase as tuition increases; you might have to make up the difference.

There are plenty of choices among excellent schools, but only you and your financial advisors can determine your ability to pay for college. It might surprise you to find out which school is your best value.

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