College is now the second-largest financial expenditure for many families, exceeded only by the purchase of a home. So it isn’t surprising that parents and students are taking a hard look at the costs and payoffs of any college they consider. To help families do that, MONEY has drawn on the research and advice of dozens of the nation’s top experts on education quality, financing, and value to develop a uniquely practical analysis of more than 700 of the nation’s best-performing colleges. Data collection and analysis were led by American Institutes for Research/Colleges Measures researcher Cameron Smither, with the help of research associate Deaweh Benson and scholar Janet Gao. MONEY’s editorial staff, however, is solely responsible for the final ranking decisions.