Monica McGurk serves as CEO and Executive Editor of The Alumni Factor.

While college tuition is arguably a family’s most expensive expenditure outside home ownership, too many high school students and their parents select colleges and universities based primarily on reputation, rather than the true value or return on investment.

A recent survey of college and university admissions directors conducted by Gallup on behalf of Inside Higher Ed found that one of the most important factors to students and their parents is college value—programs that provide the best opportunity to go get a good job after graduation.

Our research at The Alumni Factor during the past three years with scores of parents, students, high school counselors and headmasters reinforce this finding. Return on investment has become an increasingly important component in selecting a college or university. But exactly what “return” people are looking for is quite varied.

To put this into perspective, The Alumni Factor surveyed tens of thousands of college alumni from more than 450 colleges to identify the schools whose graduates were most successful in their careers and lives. After all, who knows the value of their college education better than the graduates of their schools?

To guarantee impartiality and to secure objective data, the research was conducted entirely independently, without the involvement of any college or university. We asked each graduate more than 30 questions about their college experience and its impact on their lives today, including their overall financial situation.

The outcomes we measured and ranked schools upon—all equally weighted—were determined by our research into what students and parents are expecting from a college education, and included such attributes as household net worth, intellectual development, preparation for career success, immediate job opportunities, social and communications skills development, and value for the money of one’s college education.

As a result of this data, we identified the nation’s top 177 colleges and universities based on life outcomes—how successful their alumni are in their professional careers and personal lives—and published them in The Alumni Factor, a new book and companion website. Further solidifying the Commonwealth’s position as a global hub of higher education, 16 Massachusetts schools made the top 177, which means they are among the top seven percent of all colleges and universities based on our criteria. Which schools ranked the highest will undoubtedly surprise more than a few people, however.

The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester earned the highest ranking among all colleges and universities in Massachusetts, ranking fifth in the nation, just below Washington and Lee University, Yale, Princeton and Rice.

The other Massachusetts colleges and universities that made The Alumni Factor top 177: Amherst College, 3; Mount Holyoke College, 26; MIT, 32; Harvard, 37; Williams College, 47; Smith College, 56; Boston College, 76; Tufts University, !11; Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 118; Clark University, 138; Northeastern University, 147; Brandeis University, 152; Boston University, 156; and University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 163.

Do these rankings mean, for example, that Holy Cross is a “better” school than Harvard? It depends on how one defines “better” and what factors are most important to a prospective student.

Since the 15 factors we measured were weighted equally, Holy Cross scored higher, particularly in areas that rate overall happiness with the college experience, including spiritual development, friendship development, preparation for career success and intellectual development.

Holy Cross, for example, ranked 11th in social and communication skills development, third in spiritual development and 22nd in preparation for career success. Harvard ranked 111th in social and communications skills development, 84th in spiritual development and 111th in preparation for career success.

On the other hand, Harvard ranked 7th in the percentage of households with net worth over $1 million, 21st in average household income and 17th in average household net worth. Holy Cross ranked 28th in its percentage of alumni households with net worth over $1 million, 23rd in average household net worth and 30th in average household income.

The bottom line is that students in Massachusetts have excellent options right here in state. Yet, each school offers different experiences and strengths in the way it delivers on its educational mission, so those considering college should examine and prioritize the factors that are important to them in selecting the best fit school and not rely on ratings or reputation alone.

Photo Courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education