(MONEY Magazine) – WHILE OTHER PUBLICATIONS SIMPLY ATTEMPT TO TELL you which colleges are the strongest academically, we set out to identify the 100 best college buys--the schools that deliver the highest-quality education for the tuition and fees they charge. This makes our ranking an excellent place to start your college search or to supplement information you obtain on your own from schools and from other guides.

Our value approach explains why our ranking includes such remarkably varied institutions as nationally prestigious Caltech (No. 5) and relatively obscure State University of N.Y. at Albany (No. 10). We aren't suggesting the schools are in the same league academically--they most certainly are not--but that the education they offer is well worth the cost (tuition of $8,856 for out-of-state students at Albany and $17,586 for students at Caltech). (We use out-of-state tuitions for public schools to help people searching nationwide for college bargains.)

We based our analysis mostly on data compiled with the help of Wintergreen/Orchard House of New Orleans, a publisher of college directories. (We obtained additional data from Moody's Investors Service and John Minter Associates.) In our ranking, we analyzed 16 measures of educational quality, then compared them with each college's tuition and fees to arrive at a value rating. Essentially, the schools that did best charge lower tuitions than colleges of similar quality.

Our rankings include only schools whose curriculum and campus life make students of any--or no--faith feel welcome. We exclude colleges whose primary purpose is to turn out members of the clergy, colleges that require an affirmation of faith from students, colleges that aspire to graduate students with a particular world theological view, colleges where the curriculum or extracurricular activities significantly reflect the ideology of a specific faith, and colleges where religious study of any nature, even though it may not be restricted to one faith, is a significant academic requirement.

Here are the 16 educational factors analyzed in our study. We also give the national averages for each and, where appropriate, the schools in our top 100 that scored highest:

Entrance examination results. We used the percentage of freshmen who entered college in the fall of 1994 with verbal and math scores above 500 on the SAT (average percentage who did that well at all colleges: verbal 42%, math 60%) or above 23 on the composite ACT (average: 41%).

Class rank. We looked at the percentage of entering freshmen who finished in either the top fifth (average: 44%) or the top quarter (48%) of their high school classes, depending on which statistic the colleges could supply.

High school grade point average. Using the common four-point scale, we considered the average high school GPA of the entering freshman class. Caltech and UCLA scored highest, 3.9, vs. the average of 2.9.

Faculty resources. We compared the number of full- and part-time undergraduates with the number of full- and part-time faculty. Caltech had the lowest ratio, 3 to 1, compared with the 14-to-1 average.

Core faculty. This is the ratio of students to faculty members who hold the highest degrees available in their fields. Yale was tops with a 3-to-1 ratio; the average was 15 to 1.

Faculty deployment. We considered the ratio of students to tenured faculty who actually taught classes in the fall of 1994. Massachusetts Institute of Technology had the best ratio, 5 to 1, vs. the 34-to-1 average.

Library resources. We divided the total of all reference materials, including books, periodicals and microfilm, by the number of students using the campus libraries. Yale's huge 1,500-to-1 ratio dwarfed the 186-to-1 average.

Instructional budget. We used U.S. Department of Education reports to calculate each school's expenditure per student. Caltech spent the most, $39,842; the average was $5,057.

Student services budget. These are the dollars a school spends on services such as career guidance and student activities. Dartmouth is the biggest spender at $4,044 per student; the average was $1,187.

Freshman retention rate. This is the percentage of 1993 freshmen who returned to each school in the fall of 1994. Harvard scored best with 99%; the average was 76%. A high percentage indicates that students are happy with the education they are receiving. Also, colleges that score best on this measure have the highest percentage of students who graduate within four years; 94% of Harvard's 1990 freshmen earned degrees in that time period.

Four-year graduation rates. This is the percentage of students who earn degrees in four years. The average was 40%.

Five- and six-year graduation rates. This is the percentage of freshmen who graduate within five (average: 53%) or six (average: 55%) years. We used the five-year rate only when colleges couldn't provide the six-year rate.

Advanced study. We measured the percentage of each college's graduates who went on to professional or graduate schools. The average is 23%.

Default ratio on student loans. The percentage of students who default on their loans within two years of leaving school helps identify colleges whose graduates may not be well prepared for careers. The average is 7%.

Graduates who earn doctorates. The National Research Council supplied us with the number of graduates from each college who went on to earn Ph.D.s between 1983 and 1992. The University of California-Berkeley had the most (3,640, 18% of its graduates in those years).

Business success. We used data from Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives, which lists where 71,500 top executives went to college. Yale had the most graduates in the register, 950.