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We’re only two weeks into the fall semester — or one day in if you’re Elon University, which started classes today — but we’re well into College Rankings Season, where different analysts can look at the same data in different ways and still put Harvard at No. 1. 

That's a joke. Sometimes Stanford or Princeton are the top schools!

That's also a joke. Schools rise and fall in the various rankings depending on which scale the rankers place their collective thumbs. Some rankings value alumni earnings, as you'll see, and others think social mobility is most important.

Anyway, we're most of the way through August and already we’ve seen best-college lists produced by:

The Princeton Review, which isn't affiliated with the university. The Princeton Review doesn't rank schools from 1 to 385. Instead, it uses student surveys to rank schools within a number of academic, extracurricular and quality of life categories. In this year's rankings, The Princeton Review named Elon University its Most Beautiful Campus.

Money, the personal finance website that put out a monthly print magazine until this summer. Money generates an annual list of best-value colleges. (Click here for the rankings.) Its rankings are based on three main factors: quality of education (most of which is graduation rates), affordability and outcomes (i.e. earnings of its graduates). Money's national No. 1 was University of California, Irvine. The local school that stood out on the Money list was Winston-Salem State — 442nd overall but the top public historically black college (and No. 2 HBCU overall behind only Spelman College in Atlanta.) The Winston-Salem Journal covered that story here. It’s interesting to see WSSU lean into the Money list because the university refuses to take part in the U.S. News rankings.

Kiplinger. The other big best-value list comes out from another personal finance publisher. For the 18th straight year, UNC-Chapel Hill ranked No. 1 among public universities and second overall. Its national No. 1 was Thomas Aquinas College, a tiny private school in California. Davidson (seventh) and Duke (eighth) also appear in the Kiplinger top 10.

Forbes. Not surprisingly, a magazine that focuses on wealth, elites and wealthy elites puts out college rankings that put a ton of weight on alumni salaries and leadership roles as well as alums who win Rhodes Scholarships or Ph.Ds. So it won’t surprise you when I reveal that No. 1 on this year's Forbes list is Harvard followed by Stanford. Duke, top-ranked in North Carolina, is ninth.

Washington Monthly. The politics magazine produces what I’d consider the most ambitious set of college rankings. The rankings included in its annual college issue focus on three equally weighted factors: social mobility, research and community and national service (such as Peace Corps and ROTC participation). It seems like research skews the national rankings, which is why your top 5 looks like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Yale and Duke. But Washington Monthly then breaks out social mobility into a separate ranking, America’s Best Bang for the Buck Colleges.

That’s where things get interesting. Schools that rank high on the Best Bang list do three things better than most: they make school affordable for students getting Pell Grants, they help Pell students graduate at the same or better rates than non-Pell students,  and their former students get jobs that pay better-than-expected salaries and help them repay their college loans. There's a ton of math involved in these particular rankings, in case you haven't figure that out.

In the Southeast, the top two schools — Georgetown and Washington and Lee — don’t have many Pell students, relatively speaking. (The Monthly’s Best Bang rankings are regional, by the way.) But the Monthly rankings tease out some schools with significant numbers of low- and moderate-income students: University of Florida (ranked fifth in the Southeast), James Madison University in Virginia (eighth) and Florida International (14th). Several North Carolina schools appear in the top 20 in the Southeast: Duke (fourth), Salem College in Winston-Salem (10th), Mount Olive (11th), Elizabeth City State (13th), UNC-Chapel Hill (15th), Davidson (16th) and UNCG (17th).

The Monthly's rankings mentioned a couple of other local schools, for the record:

We railed against High Point University last year for its incredibly high net price and fancy amenities, but they get a partial pass this year for donating $1 million to Bennett College to help it stay open amid financial troubles. High Point is last in the Southeast this year (Bennett is 102nd), but they deserve kudos for helping out a higher-performing college.

As always, I include a standard disclaimer in most posts about college rankings. U.S. News & World Report's Robert Morse (aka the U.S. News college rankings guru) probably said it best in a recent column, so I'll go with what he wrote:

The rankings are a start, not the answer. They should be used as one tool in anyone’s college search process.

Amen to that. 

Speaking of U.S. News, its annual rankings — the one against which all other college rankings are measured against — are due out in September.

P.S.: Three researchers a year ago unveiled their look into correlation between college ranks and student test scores. Not surprisingly, they found that the schools atop the rankings (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc.) also admitted the students with the highest test scores. Shocking, I know. 

The researchers concluded their column by saying the quiet part out loud: 

Schools may want to take as much credit as they can for the education and opportunities they give students. But if a school enrolls the top students to begin with, it’s hardly surprising that such a school would end up on top in terms of other outcomes. A college’s success may be less about the quality of its instruction and more about the talent it can recruit.

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