College may be a great investment, but not if you pay too much for it, and not if you don’t graduate. As the costs of tuition continue to rise, prospective college students — and the taxpayers who subsidize higher education — need better information on which schools do the best job of delivering degrees at a reasonable cost.

That’s why this year, the Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings include a new “best bang for the buck” measure of college performance. We calculate which schools have the best records of helping their students graduate at the lowest price (factoring in financial aid), and which burn through tuition dollars with little to show for it. And unlike other publications, which rank colleges based on how prestigious and selective they are, we rate schools on how well they perform with the students they have, regardless of background or SAT scores.

So which are America’s “best bang for the buck” colleges? The results may surprise you. At the top of our list are schools like San Diego State, Cal State Fresno, Elizabeth City State of North Carolina, and Berea College of Kentucky — institutions that barely register on the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Meanwhile, some famous, high-status schools that occupy the upper reaches of the U.S. News list, such as USC and Carnegie Mellon, wind up near the bottom of ours.

To find out why and learn more, read “America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges” by Rachel Fishman and Robert Kelchen in Washington Monthly’s 2012 College Guide and Rankings.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.