In Forbes rankings, Harvard plummets to No. 15 while others rise to top

MIT earns spot at No. 1 overall for value, inclusion and retention, while UCLA leads pack of publics at No. 5.

Yes, you’re reading this correctly: Harvard University is at No. 15 on this year’s Forbes list of America’s Top Colleges.

In a stunning dismissal of prestige and legacy in favor of retention and the power of Pell, Forbes delivered a heavy blow to one of the most highly respected institutions in the country, one that was No. 1 as recently as 2019. But with a changing methodology that now favors value and access for all, Harvard and many other traditional universities that once dominated the top have fallen in 2022. Their value is still great, but not compared with others, including No. 1 neighbor Massachusetts Institute of Technology and No. 2s Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

“Harvard doesn’t stack up to Forbes’ list leaders on a couple of measures. The first is retention rate,” wrote Emma Whitford, Forbes’ senior education reporter, in a separate article on the topic of why Harvard isn’t near the top, referencing its failures to bring back students during COVID-19 in 2020 at just 76%. “On top of pandemic-worn retention rates, Harvard scored poorly on Forbes’ Pell index [factoring the number of Pell students and their 6-year graduation rates].”

Whether Harvard will rise again next year, particularly after the return of international students, is uncertain. It still remains one of the best in terms of mid-career earnings ($169,000) and is more than generous in its aid packages for students, Forbes points out. However, the Pell problem likely won’t disappear for the Cambridge, Mass., institution because it simply doesn’t accept enough grant recipients from its applicant pool. It is one of the reasons why it sits at No. 15 and its Ivy League rivals Princeton (No. 4) and Yale (No. 8), which do have a wider swath of Pell holders on campus, managed to crack the Top 10. Even for Yale, the news wasn’t that great. It also tanked on retention and dropped from its No. 2 perch last year.

Another California institution, UCLA (No. 5), soared up the list while leading a wave of public institutions that gained strength under the Forbes methodology and in the eyes of students because of their affordability and low debt burdens. However, privates still managed to score 17 of the top 20 positions (the only other outlier being the University of California, San Diego, at No. 17). Williams College (No. 7) and Duke University (No. 9) managed to sneak into the Top 10, along with the University of Pennsylvania (No. 10). There were few surprises among the rest of that 20–except maybe their positions–Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt and Dartmouth all came in ahead of Harvard, while Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Brown and the University of Chicago slid below.

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Where publics really showed their strength is in the next tier, led by the University of California at Davis (No. 23), University of Michigan (No. 25), University of Florida (No. 26), University of North Carolina (No. 28), University of Virginia (No. 29), and University of California at Irvine (No. 30) all reaching the top 30.

“I am delighted that UCI is deservedly recognized as one of the finest public universities in the nation and am especially proud that our institution continues to provide world-class opportunities to those who traditionally have not had access to higher education,” said Chancellor Howard Gillman.

Many small, highly acclaimed liberal arts institutions, including Claremont McKenna, Bowdoin, Wesleyan, Hamilton and Barnard, all fell outside the top 40.

But the best of them all was MIT. Aside from its stellar retention scores, its graduates manage the best median 10-year salary average at $173,700 (just ahead of Stanford’s $173,500) and have access to unparalleled academics in emerging fields and research, with Forbes noting its “439 patents and 25 companies formed.” MIT also recently landed at No. 1 on Niche’s 2023 Best Colleges in America and was No. 3 on Washington Monthly’s list, behind Stanford and Penn. For the record, Harvard finished No. 3 on Niche and No. 6 on Washington Monthly.

Another traditional power that landed in the top five was Princeton, which is one of the best in the nation at limiting loan debt for students at just $3,647. Berea College in Kentucky, which ranked No. 441 overall, led that category at $2,391. In terms of average grant aid, the best was Yale at $59,134, followed by Amherst College ($57,918) and Harvard.

Readers can check out more in the lists from Forbes. Here is its top 100 for 2022:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  2. Stanford University
  3. University of California-Berkeley
  4. Princeton University
  5. Columbia University
  6. UCLA
  7. Williams College
  8. Yale University
  9. Duke University
  10. University of Pennsylvania
  11. Northwestern University
  12. Rice University
  13. Vanderbilt University
  14. Dartmouth College
  15. Harvard University
  16. Cornell University
  17. University of California-Davis
  18. Johns Hopkins University
  19. Brown University
  20. University of Chicago
  21. University of Southern California
  22. Georgetown University
  23. University of California-Davis
  24. Amherst College
  25. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  26. University of Florida
  27. Washington University in ST. Louis
  28. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
  29. University of Virginia
  30. University of California-Irvine
  31. Emory University
  32. Tufts University
  33. University of Washington at Seattle
  34. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign
  35. Georgia Institute of Technology
  36. University of Notre Dame
  37. Wellesley College
  38. Swarthmore College
  39. University of California-Santa Barbara
  40. University of Maryland, College Park
  41. College of William and Mary
  42. Boston College
  43. University of Texas at Austin
  44. Colgate University
  45. California Institute of Technology
  46. Carnegie-Mellon University
  47. Claremont McKenna College
  48. Bowdoin College
  49. University of Wisconsin-Madison
  50. Wake Forest University
  51. Wesleyan University
  52. Texas A&M University, College Station
  53. Hamilton College
  54. Boston University
  55. Middlebury College
  56. Santa Clara University
  57. Brigham Young University
  58. Purdue University
  59. Washington and Lee University
  60. New York University
  61. George Washington University
  62. Trinity College
  63. San Diego State University
  64. University of Georgia
  65. SUNY-Binghamton
  66. CUNY-Baruch College
  67. Florida State University
  68. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
  69. Davidson College
  70. North Carolina State University
  71. Barnard College
  72. University of Richmond
  73. Vassar College
  74. University of Connecticut
  75. New Jersey Institute of Technology
  76. California State University-Fullerton
  77. Lafayette College
  78. University of Miami
  79. Northeastern University
  80. California State University-Long Beach
  81. Michigan State University
  82. Virginia Tech
  83. Southern Methodist University
  84. University of California-Riverside
  85. Pomona College
  86. SUNY-Stony Brook
  87. University of California-Santa Cruz
  88. University of Utah
  89. Bucknell University
  90. University at Buffalo
  91. Indiana University, Bloomington
  92. Grinnell College
  93. Rutgers University
  94. Villanova University
  95. Bryn Mawr College
  96. Colorado College
  97. University of Rochester
  98. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo
  99. University of Illinois-Chicago
  100. Loyola Marymount University
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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