Paying for college isn't like paying for a car or a house. It's easy to research cars and houses to the point that you really do know exactly what you're getting. Have a mechanic look over the car before you buy it. Get the house inspected. Read what Consumer Reports says about the car. Research the schools in the house's neighborhood. Sure, there can be unforeseen surprises. But in most cases, you know what to expect once you buy it.
Colleges can't be measured like that because there's a gigantic unknown in the equation–the student.
You can pay top dollar for a private college that offers small classes, personal attention from professors and the most supportive, encouraging environment you can find. Still, your kid has to take advantage of all those opportunities for it to mean anything. You can send your kid to the cheapest public school in your state that has huge classes, and professors who care more about their research than they do their teaching. If your student commits to extracting the maximum value from her four years there, she'll probably get a great education.
Choosing a college is a lot like buying a gym membership. If you enroll in the nicest gym in town but don't utilizes all the classes and trainers (or if you just don't go at all), the guy who works out every day with old dumbbells in his garage will be in much better shape than you will be.
I think colleges can and should be rigorously evaluated. But they can't be measured or ranked. You can't research your way to a college that guarantees future success. The student is the X-factor in any college decision.
So when you're trying to decide whether or not a particular college is worth the investment, don't forget to evaluate your student, too.