GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – They just met on the football field (North Carolina won) and in a few months will meet on the basketball court (Feb. 4 will be the first time this season), but in a ranking of best universities, this time the edge went to Duke over UNC Chapel Hill.

U.S. News and World Reports issued its rankings last month, which followed The Princeton Review’s student-based analysis in August. On Monday WalletHub, the financial consulting and data analysis website, threw in its rankings of the top colleges in the U.S based on top academic performance and lowest possible cost.

That report ranked Blue Devils No. 1 in North Carolina, followed by the Tar Heels. Davidson College, North Carolina State University and UNC-Wilmington rounded out the top five in WalletHub’s evaluation of more than 900 colleges and institutions.

Each ranking system has its nuances, and WalletHub, which evaluates all sorts of issues based on trends and geography, says its analysts compared data from across 30 “key measures” grouped into seven categories, such as Student Selectivity, Cost & Financing and Career Outcomes. These included such issues as student-faculty ratio to graduation rate to post-attendance median salary.

But WalletHub said it also analyzed post-attendance issues, such as student-loan default rate and the share of former students “outearning high school graduates.”

If you care about national rankings, WalletHub’s top 10 was (in order) MIT, Yale, Cal Tech, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Rice, Penn, Georgia Tech and Duke. UNC-Chapel Hill was No. 39, and Davidson was No. 71.

WalletHub also broke down rankings by region, and in the South the top 10 were Rice, Georgia Tech, Duke, Vanderbilt, the University of Florida, the University of Virginia, Washington and Lee, Emory, UNC-Chapel Hill and Texas.

Why was Duke ranked so high? Here are some clues. WalletHub ranked it best in North Carolina for admission rate, student-faculty ratio, gender and racial diversity, graduation rate and post-attendance median salary. For net cost it was 40th.

UNC’s best rankings were second for graduation rate, third for admission rate and fourth for post-attendance median salary. It ranked 27th for net cost. Davidson was second in those same three categories and was 38th for net cost.

Elsewhere in North Carolina

Although the analysis includes 900-plus institutions, not every “name” school in every state is included. There were 14 in North Carolina, and Wake Forest, UNC-Greensboro, NC A&T and High Point University weren’t on the list. Each of them has performed well in other rankings.

The rest of the top 10 in North Carolina were Meredith College, Queens University, Salem College, Elon University and Catawba College.

Elon University ranked No. 370 overall, Appalachian State was No. 404, and Salem College was No. 356.

Bests and worsts

If you are interested in superlatives, try these:

  • Admission rate: Cal Tech, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford tied for the lowest rate, and Lewis-Clark State, Grand View University, Georgia State, Delta State, Bethune-Cookman and Adams State tied for the highest, at No. 901.
  • Student-faculty ratio: The lowest were Cal Tech and MIT, and the highest was the University of Central Florida, which has one of the highest enrollments in the country, with about 70,406 for the 2021-22 academic year.
  • Graduation rate: Highest was Princeton, which nosed out a second-place time among Columbia, Harvard and Yale. The lowest was Bacone College in Oklahoma.
  • Percentage of international students: A tie among Nyack College, Rochester, The New School (of New York) and New York University for the highest. Auburn had the lowest.
  • Student-loan default rate: Lowest was a tie among Amherst College, Cal Tech, Harvey and Wilberforce University. Harvey Mudd College and Haverford College. The highest were Livingstone College in Salisbury and Wilberforce University.

About the cost

Cost was a key factor for WalletHub’s analysis, which included the average cost of tuition, room and board at a 4-year college to range from around $23,000 to $52,000 per year. WalletHub asked a panel of experts if they thought the price of an Ivy League school was worth the value over some other school.

Gregory C. Wolniak, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, gave a short answer: “No.”

Gregory C. Wolniak, University of Georgia (WALLETHUB)

“Simply put, the university that will provide a student with the best return on investment is the university that helps the student graduate with their intended degree,” Wolniak told WalletHub. “But graduation rates alone are not the only indicator that matters. As someone who studies college student development and the socioeconomic implications of college, I am far more impressed by institutions that provide broad access to students while retaining and graduating high percentages, than I am with elite institutions that admit only the best students and, not surprisingly, achieve high graduation rates.

“With that in mind, I prefer to focus on those institutions that perform well on the various social mobility rankings that have begun to emerge. Those rankings are not perfect, but they should be an important part of this conversation and push people to think more about institutions that may not have scored high on traditional rankings of ‘best’ institutions.” 

Cecila Rios Aguilar, UCLA (WALLETHUB)

Cecilia Rios Aguilar, a professor at UCLA, said that answer about the Ivy League depends on “who answers the question.”

“If you are a low-income student of color that was admitted to one of these schools and are granted a financial aid package that covers the cost of attendance, then attending this type of institution may be quite beneficial to you,” Aguilar said. “However, students should also consider how they will be treated at this type of institution because there may be other (non-monetary) costs that they have to consider when attending “name brand” institutions.”

When it came to whether a college education should be free, Aguilar, Bianca Elizabeth Vega of Montclair State and Stephen M. Brown of Sacred Heart all sort of said yes, starting with community colleges. Jeongeun Kim of Arizona State said no.

Wolniak agreed to some extent with the idea of free. “Conversations about free tuition should focus on the margins, such as low-income students attending community college,” he said. “More generally, it should be possible for any student to afford to attend their public, in-state, flagship university on the kinds of earnings they can accumulate by holding a part-time job during the academic year and by working full-time over the summer.”