How do we get off picking the best? We stick to what we know and exploit our in-house brain trust. By Janet Bodnar, Editor-at-Large November 30, 2009 You’ve no doubt noticed lots of superlatives in our December 2009 issue. With so many investment vehicles, products and services to choose from, you might wonder, How do we get off picking the best of anything, much less everything from colleges to mutual funds? Simple: We stick to what we know and exploit our in-house brain trust.Take senior associate editor Jane Bennett Clark, who heads the team that compiles our annual rankings of the 100 best values in private colleges and universities. Jane took the initiative to become certified as a college planning specialist. Perhaps even more significant, she has shepherded three kids through the college process, the youngest of whom is a student at Vanderbilt (number 17 on our list). So she brings an expert eye to combing through the data that make up our exclusive rankings -- the only ones that focus on value, Kiplinger’s stock in trade. Sponsored Content But money isn’t everything. Schools can’t even make our list until they first pass our screen for academic quality, which counts for more than cost. Our rankings not only feature schools that are good overall values, but they also help families find colleges that fit their own circumstances, both academically and financially. For instance, you can personalize the list by drilling down to find schools that dole out financial aid based on merit rather than need. Jane adds her own personal touch by going the extra mile -- literally -- to visit noteworthy schools that are not necessarily number one. This year, for example, she chose Davidson, which has been number four on our list for three of the past four years. “I wanted to feature a southern school,” says Jane, “and Davidson has raised its profile, partly as a result of making it to college basketball’s Elite Eight.” Her visit turned up observations about Davidson that you don’t normally find in rankings. For instance, Davidson students hew to an impressive honor code that requires them not to lie, cheat or steal. And at this homey school, says Jane, “virtually no one was able to get through a conversation without mentioning basketball star Stephen Curry at least once.” Advertisement Knowledgeable Nerds Our fourth annual best list is a collaboration on the part of the entire staff. The hard part isn’t coming up with choices -- it’s whittling them down. In a new addition this year, we also recommend pundits who we think are worth listening to. Associate editor Elizabeth Ody considered herself “lucky” to be picking the top mutual funds, several of which -- funds that protect against inflation or profit from a falling dollar -- she had already written about. And, says Elizabeth, “no other low-minimum fund comes close to catching the returns and risk protection that Amana Growth has provided investors.” One of the tougher calls was Best New Fund, for which she enlisted input from her colleagues. “You can’t really find a more knowledgeable set of fund nerds than the ones on this staff.” Senior associate editor Andrew Tanzer was the fund nerd who compiled our list of top broker-sold mutual funds. We cater mainly to do-it-yourself investors, so we usually concentrate on no-load funds. But nowadays investors can often access load funds without coughing up punitive front-end fees by purchasing them through financial advisers, brokers, 401(k) plans and other intermediaries. To choose his top 12, which include both old-line fund families and younger, boutique shops, Andrew favored managers “with risk-management skills to protect investors’ capital in down markets and the investment prowess to enjoy most or all of the rewards of bull markets.” It’s a sophisticated analysis presented in a way that’s simple for readers to understand. Best Used Cars For our popular car picks, we started with our own favorites based on test-drives. We also used Kiplinger’s proprietary ranking system to assess cars for value, performance and safety. From vehicles that made the used-car cut, associate editor Jessica Anderson, author of our Drive Time column, narrowed her selection to those that had the friendliest combination of pricing, fuel economy and reliability. To choose the best green cars, we didn’t stick slavishly to hybrids but also included diesels, which get up to 40% better fuel economy than gasoline-engine vehicles. Those selections were “more scientific,” says Jessica, because she pulled all the 2010 models into statistical rankings and “let the chips fall where they may.” Cars that were close in points got extra credit if we liked them in our test-drives. Advertisement Where to Retire Abroad When associate editor Laura Cohn began researching the best place to retire south of the border, she assumed Mexico would be number one. But then she learned about Panama’s pensionado program. If you retire to Panama, you qualify for discounts on utility bills, airline tickets, doctor bills, hotel stays, movie tickets and cultural events. After confirming the benefits with the Panamanian Embassy, says Laura, “I decided it couldn’t be beat.” Best Credit Cards To select the top credit cards on our list, senior reporter Joan Goldwasser constructed a scenario based on how much a typical consumer would spend by category each month and then calculated how much you’d receive in cash rebates. One twist this year: “I used a lower dollar amount because I assumed that people had cut back on their spending.” So is the December issue our “best”? Yes -- until the January issue is out.