Stanford University earned high marks all around. Leah Fasten

How to Find the Best College for Your Money

Updated: Nov 12, 2015 11:05 PM UTC | Originally published: Jul 13, 2015

When it comes to picking a college, the quest for value has taken center stage. Schools are handing out brochures touting their job-placement records (without much to back up the stats). New programs let you test your way to a degree for just a few thousand dollars. And so far this year, Americans have searched Google using the words “college” and “value” 1.1 million times a month, a 10% jump over 2014.

Even the government is getting into the act, or trying to. In June the Obama administration succumbed to two years of opposition from colleges and abandoned efforts to rate them based on value. Instead, it will simply launch web tools in the fall that will let you screen colleges by data such as tuition, graduation rates, and post-graduate success. Meanwhile, 2016 presidential candidates on both the left and the right are appealing to voters with promises of helping students graduate “debt-free” or get “workforce-ready” degrees.

The reason for this heightened focus on value is obvious to anyone who has priced out college recently. Even after accounting for the typical amount of financial aid and tax breaks, the total cost of a BA from a public university will come to about $75,000; at a private college the average family should budget for $115,000-plus. Not likely to be eligible for aid? That bill could top $250,000.

See MONEY's full Best Colleges rankings

The result: high anxiety among families about the value proposition of a college education. In a recent survey for CreditCards.com, 31% of adults reported losing sleep over college costs. “The debate has moved front and center as college has gotten more expensive,” says Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at think tank New America. “Students are investing all of this time and money in their future, and they wonder, What am I actually getting?”

To help parents and students answer that question, MONEY has once again set out to find great schools that are truly worth the investment. With our second annual Best Colleges rankings, we’ve identified more than 700 colleges that deliver a quality education that launches students on a successful career at a price your family can afford.

Mark Schneider, former head of the National Center for Education Statistics and current president of College Measures, collaborated with MONEY to develop the rankings, which evaluate the schools on 21 measures of educational quality, affordability, and career earnings. The careers website PayScale.com provided earnings data for the schools’ alumni, as well as analysis of those earnings based on what types of majors predominate at the schools. (You can find the full methodology behind our college rankings here.)

Leah Fasten
TK_COL_Standford_Lab

"The Farm," as Stanford students refer to their vast campus, grows high earners.

Coming in at No. 1 this year is Stanford University, where innovative teaching, generous aid policies, and average alumni earnings well above even Ivy League standards combine to give students an educational experience that shines on all counts. But our Best Colleges list also underscores that it’s not just elite institutions that can deliver a great education and a leg up in the workforce—at a price you can handle. Our rankings include many places that don’t typically show up on best lists, such as College of the Ozarks (No. 26), where students work in lieu of paying tuition, and Maine Maritime Academy (No. 8), a public college specializing in business, engineering, and marine biology. “A school’s name isn’t everything. Results are,” says Schneider. “You may be surprised that schools you may never have heard of will give you a better shot at success.”

As you browse our rankings, keep a few things in mind. Some of the data used to evaluate colleges are imperfect. The test scores of incoming freshmen are self-reported by colleges. The earnings estimates are based on voluntary surveys. Plus, schools within 20 or so places of one another are roughly the same, especially at the top. But paired with your own research and visits, these rankings can be a valuable guide to where your tuition will go the furthest.

The best-value colleges aren’t necessarily the cheapest. But studies show, and our rankings confirm, that key aspects of the college experience are worth paying more for. So as you set out to find the best college fit for your student, pay attention to these five important signs that a school is a true value.

1. Help Getting You to the Goal

At its most b