In ranking the best colleges for 2023, are Ivy schools really a good value?

WalletHub’s new report showcases the top institutions and those that provide better ROI than others.

Most major rankings services unveiled their best colleges and universities lists for 2022-23 a month ago, each touting their own measures of institutional value. One straggler, WalletHub, recently released its version before the Nov. 1 early-decision deadline, hoping to give students a look at which institutions could give them the highest quality for the lowest prices.

With selectivity and education outcomes as two main variables in its methodology, however, WalletHub’s elite group of 2023 Colleges and Universities looks strikingly similar to its counterparts. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. 1 on a few other lists, is also WalletHub’s top institution. There are four Ivy League schools in the Top 10, led by Yale (No. 2), Princeton (No. 4), Harvard (No. 5) and Penn (No. 8). Mainstays Caltech (No. 3), Stanford (No. 6), Rice (No. 7), Georgia Tech (No. 9) and Duke (No. 10) also rose to the top.

Despite the amount of aid and grants potentially available at these elites and the significant prestige in attending them, the results almost beg the question, one that editors from WalletHub proposed to experts: Is an education at Harvard or Penn, or at three others Ivys that cracked the Top 20—Brown, Columbia and Dartmouth—really worth the cost?

“It depends. For most students, the answer is no,” says Linda Serra Hagedorn, Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University,  addressing that question specifically about return on investment at the Ivys. “However, for those aspiring to attend an elite institution for a graduate degree, an Ivy League undergraduate degree may deliver a higher likelihood of acceptance. For those wishing to enter politics, or aspire to an elite position with multinational companies like Google, Facebook and others, pedigree is important. However, for most students seeking a baccalaureate degree, an award from an Ivy League is not necessary.”

Alex McCormick, associate professor emeritus at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, said it is more complicated. “This isn’t a simple yes-or-no question. For one thing, a substantial fraction of students at those schools receive financial aid. So, the actual cost to students can vary a lot. ‘Worth it’ is also complicated. It could mean educational benefits, labor market returns, access to grad school, bragging rights and ego boosts, or some combination of these.”

More from UB: U.S. News rankings

He says one of the variables that make an institution highly valued is its ability to retain students. Private institutions such as Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Swarthmore, Carnegie-Mellon, Harvey Mudd and Claremont-McKenna all do a wonderful job preparing and seeing through students to graduation. All of them made WalletHub’s top 20, even though retail prices can be quite high. Still, McCormick admits, “It’s a matter of how much students are willing to put into the experience and take advantage of the educational opportunities available” that is typically a difference maker, not necessarily the institution.

Inside the lists

WalletHub’s rankings aren’t just a one-and-done, best-of 200 institutions in America. It used 30 different measures to weigh success and broke out some of them into separate categories to give students a clearer picture of which ones might fit their needs. It also can be a nice way for institutions to gauge where they might be succeeding and where they might need a bit more work.

For all of their brilliance, none of the top 8 institutions even finished in the top 700 in terms of cost and financing—that is, net cost and availability of employment services for students. No. 1 on that list was Chicago State University, followed by Texas A&M International University and Florida Polytechnic University. Several City University of New York schools did extraordinarily well in that metric and also landed near or within the top 100 overall. For students who think they may be able to afford big-ticket schools or even get in, these could be great options.

Several higher education experts quoted in WalletHub’s report touted the value of community colleges and state public institutions. They said the better ones also do a couple of things very well.

“Universities that provide the best return on investment are those that are honest about their net cost of attendance and the potential debt their students incur,” Bianca Elizabeth Vega, assistant professor at Montclair State University, told WalletHub researchers. Universities that spend a healthy amount of time with potential students to discuss the ways they can mitigate potential debt are crucial. The amount of investment universities spend on their student services is an important yet little-discussed area of the student debt/high-tuition equation. Student services provide students with advisors and mentors who can work with students individually to ensure student persistence, retention, and success.”

Which institutions provide the best career outcomes, such as ROI, employment after six months, median salary and debt reduction? WalletHub offered this as a standalone category, and only five of the top 20 schools managed to land in the top 10: Caltech, Penn, Duke, Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd. The rest included RPI (No. 70 overall), Georgetown University (No. 35), Bentley University (No. 137), Bryant University (No. 199) and Kettering University (No. 201).

In its other categories, Caltech was best for faculty resources, New York University earned the top spot for campus experience, and Columbia University was No. 1 for career outcomes. Here is WalletHub’s list of the overall Best Colleges and Universities for 2023:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  2. Yale University
  3. California Institute of Technology
  4. Princeton University
  5. Harvard University
  6. Stanford University
  7. Rice University
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. Georgia Institute of Technology
  10. Duke University
  11. Northwestern University
  12. Johns Hopkins University
  13. Brown University
  14. Columbia University
  15. Vanderbilt University
  16. Swarthmore College
  17. Carnegie Mellon University
  18. Dartmouth College
  19. Harvey Mudd College
  20. Claremont McKenna College
  21. University of California-Berkeley
  22. University of Florida
  23. University of Chicago
  24. University of Southern California
  25. University of California-Irvine
  26. Wellesley College
  27. Amherst College
  28. University of Michigan Ann Arbor
  29. Cornell University
  30. University of Virginia
  31. Grinnell College
  32. Hamilton College
  33. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
  34. University of Notre Dame
  35. Georgetown University
  36. Washington and Lee University
  37. Emory University
  38. Washington University in St. Louis
  39. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
  40. Carleton College
  41. Middlebury College
  42. Northeastern University
  43. University of California-San Diego
  44. University of Texas at Austin
  45. Vassar College
  46. Colby College
  47. University of California-Santa Barbara
  48. Barnard College
  49. Macalester College
  50. Haverford College
  51. Tufts University
  52. Boston College
  53. University of Georgia
  54. Case Western Reserve University
  55. New York University
  56. Trinity University
  57. University of Richmond
  58. William & Mary
  59. College of the Holy Cross
  60. Binghamton University-SUNY
  61. Boston University
  62. Scripps College
  63. Florida State University
  64. Villanova University
  65. Brandeis University
  66. California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
  67. Colgate University
  68. University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign
  69. Mount Holyoke College
  70. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  71. Davidson College
  72. Tulane University
  73. Centre College
  74. University of California-Davis
  75. Occidental College
  76. North Carolina State University
  77. St. Olaf College
  78. University of Maryland-College Park
  79. Kenyon College
  80. University of Rochester
  81. Rhodes College
  82. Brigham Young University-Provo
  83. Stony Brook University-SUNY
  84. Wabash College
  85. University of Connecticut
  86. DePauw University
  87. Bucknell University
  88. CUNY-Baruch College
  89. Union College (NY)
  90. Whitman College
  91. Virginia Tech
  92. Lehigh University
  93. Connecticut College
  94. University of Washington
  95. University of Wisconsin-Madison
  96. Stevens Institute of Technology
  97. Oberlin College and Conservatory
  98. CUNY-Hunter College
  99. Virginia Military Institute
  100. The Ohio State University-Columbus 
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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