Stanford, a research and teaching university in Northern California's Silicon Valley, ranked No. 1, jumping from third place last year after scoring high marks for retention rates and high graduate starting salaries. It has 19,945 students and annual costs are $58,846.
Much smaller Pomona College, with 1,586 students and an annual bill of $57,041, was in second place. The college, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, offers only undergraduate degrees.
"For the first time in the six years Forbes has produced this list, the top two schools are on the Pacific Coast," Forbes said in an article on Wednesday accompanying the list at www.forbes.com/top-colleges.
Princeton University in New Jersey, which was No. 1 last year, slipped to third place, followed by Yale University in Connecticut in fourth place and Columbia University in New York City at No. 5.
Costs at the top five schools ranged from $54,789 at Princeton to $61,640 at Columbia.
The Forbes ranking of 650 US colleges and universities, calculated by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is based on student satisfaction, post-graduate success, student debt, graduation rate and national competitive awards.
Massachusetts had the most schools in the top 10 with Harvard University at No. 8, slipping from No. 6 last year; Williams College in ninth place and Massachusetts Institute of Technology at No. 10.
The University of California, Berkeley, which came in 22nd on the list, was ranked as the best state school in the country. Twenty-three public schools ranked in the top 100.
"Flagship state schools offer an excellent education for much lower tuition bills than their average private counterparts. As more students are seeking to hold down debt, public colleges and universities can and will be more selective," Forbes said.
Among top-tier Ivy League schools, New York's Cornell University rose to 19th on this year's list from No. 51 in 2012. The University of Pennsylvania ranked No. 11, Brown University in Rhode Island came in at No. 12 and Dartmouth in New Hampshire was No. 16.
Morehouse College in Atlanta made the biggest leap in the ranking, jumping 235 places to No. 285.