Forbes College Rankings 2013: A Mild Shift to Publics

The annual Forbes best college rankings have not been friendly to public colleges, but this year, because of changes in methodology, the rankings include six public institutions among the top 50 colleges, up from five in 2012 and only two in 2011.  If the service academies are included, the three major academies are also in the top 50.

The 2013 rankings continue a welcome trend on the part of the magazine that now yields a more sensible list with fewer wild variations.  A list of public universities in the top 100 appears at the end of this article.

Some observers of college rankings accept the Forbes position that the magazine’s rankings, put together by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP), under the leadership of one of the most outspoken critics of public universities, Richard Vedder, are better than others because they focus only on “outputs” rather than on subjective data, such as academic reputation.

One of the main problems with the Forbes rankings has been their high variability from one year to the next.  It is surprising, for example, that the University of Wisconsin ranking would change from 316 (in 2011) to 147 (in 2012) and to 68 (2013).   Not to mention that it was ranked number 212 in 2010.  On the other hand, the continuing methodological changes at least are moving toward a more equitable consideration of the public institutions and appear to be indicative of more stability in the overall rankings.

In 2011 only the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary barely cracked the Forbes top 50.  In 2012, the top 50 included UVA (36) William & Mary (40), UCLA (45), UNC Chapel Hill (47) and UC Berkeley (50).

For 2013, UC Berkeley has jumped all the way to number 22; UVA to 29; UCLA to 34; and UNC Chapel Hill to 38.

More indicative of the positive developments is that for 2013, the University of Michigan also appears in the top 50, at number 30, a big leap from 57 in 2012. (In 2011, Michigan ranked 93rd.)

Other public universities shared in the upward trend in 2013, with a total of 18 now ranked in the top 100.  Illinois has moved from 147 in 2011, to 86 in 2012, and now to 53 in 2013.  UT Austin, a particular target of Richard Vedder in recent years, has risen from 185 in 2011, to 104 in 2012, and to 66 in 2013.

The original Forbes methodology was clearly biased, using data from Who’s Who listings as one indicator.  Now the methodology appears to have settled into the following pattern:

–37.5% for post-graduate success, measured by salaries on, listings in “power” profiles, and winners of Nobel, Pulitzer, National Academy of Science, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and other awards, including Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys;

–22.5% for student satisfaction, with two-thirds of the measure coming from and the other third from the percentage of students being retained after the freshman year;

–17.5% based on student debt load and loan default rates;

–11.25% based on four-year graduation rate;

–11.25% based on attainment of prestigious student awards, including Rhodes, Fulbright, National Science Foundation, and other scholarships, and on the percentage of graduates who earn PhD’s.

One interesting feature of the rankings is that they combine national research universities and liberal arts colleges into one large group.  This allows readers a direct rather than implied comparison, the latter being the option with the U.S. News rankings.  Therefore, while Stanford is ranked number 1 by Forbes this year, tiny Pomona College is ranked number 2.

Because Forbes has focused on four-year graduation rates rather than five- or six-year rates, renowned public engineering schools such as Purdue and Georgia Tech have risen gradually in the rankings but remain lower than they would be if six-year grad rates were used: Georgia Tech was 397 in 2011, improved to 135 in 2012, and now ranks 83 under the new methodology; Purdue ranked 311 in 2011; 195 in 2012; and now ranks 106.

A final comment: Forbes is applauded for not using subjective data, such as that for academic reputation.  Nevertheless, our own work has shown a significant correlation between academic reputation and Fulbright and NSF awards, and academic reputation and the percentage of bachelor’s students who go on to obtain a Ph.D., the latter a new metric for the magazine.  Academic reputation also has a positive correlation with graduation rates.  Therefore, the influence of academic reputation is present in the Forbes rankings, though indirectly, just as it is in our own rankings.

7–U.S. Military Academy

22–UC Berkeley

28–U.S. Naval Academy



31–U.S. Air Force Academy


38–UNC Chapel Hill

44–William & Mary



66–UT Austin




83–Georgia Tech


93–Penn State

96–UC Santa Barbara


99–UC Davis