If you've never heard of Truman State, you're not alone, says President Troy Paino. "People come up here and say, 'This is the best-kept secret in higher education.' And I say, 'Well, I don't really want to keep it that way.'"
Truman draws many of its applicants from the Midwest. It has competitive students (27% of incoming freshmen score 30 or higher on the ACT) and a relatively low, 16-to-1 student-faculty ratio. Truman's hook is that it offers a private school–style liberal arts education at a public school price.
For Missouri residents, that price is just $15,720, and it falls to an average of $8,950 after tallying need. With 85% of need met, Truman is one of the more generous institutions on our list. And costs are low for nonresidents, who pay a reasonable $21,456 (or $14,686 after need). Out-of-state merit scholarships can make that nonresident tuition even more palatable. For example, an out-of-state A student scoring 29 or higher on the ACT can expect a $5,000 annual scholarship.
Students at Truman commit to studying hard. "Everyone is nerdy in their own way," says Alexis Morris, a junior who is majoring in chemistry. "It's the kind of school where on Sunday, the library doesn’t open until 1 p.m. but everyone is lined up at 12:30."
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"This is the only public school I applied to," says Nathan Klein, a 21-year-old senior and physics major. Klein also submitted applications to seven private schools but leaned toward Truman after visiting the campus. A generous scholarship sealed the deal.
Truman State is still subject to the same budget woes as any other state school. Last fall, a proposed tobacco tax increase that could have earmarked more than $200 million for education failed to pass. But Paino says that Truman is accustomed to maintaining its academic priorities despite tight budgets. "We try to invest our money in what directly serves students, whether it's on the student-life side or on the academic side."
For Klein, who will graduate loan-free this spring and head to a seminary, Truman was the right choice. "I've had all the same opportunities at Truman that I'd have had at any other school," he says. "Maybe more because I’m not graduating with debt."
The institutions in the top ten range from small colleges to immense flagship universities and span the entire nation, but they have one thing in common: They all deliver the most academic bang for your buck.
1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Undergrad enrollment: 18,430
Student-faculty ratio: 14:1
Graduation rate: 4-yr., 77%; 6-yr., 90%
Annual in-state cost: $18,609
Annual out-of-state cost: $39,361
Avg. debt at graduation: $17,525
UNC Chapel Hill is our number-one public college for the 12th time. Why is it a perennial Kiplinger winner? Credit its stellar academics, reasonable sticker price and generous financial aid. UNC's 77% four-year graduation rate trounces the 31% national average, and its 31% admission rate (the percentage of applicants who are accepted out of those who apply) makes it one of the most competitive schools on our list. Non-Carolinians can also take advantage of a superior value -- UNC is number two in our out-of-state rankings, behind SUNY Geneseo.
2. University of Virginia
Undergrad enrollment: 15,762
Student-faculty ratio: 16:1
Graduation rate: 4-yr., 87%; 6-yr., 94%
Annual in-state cost: $22,645
Annual out-of-state cost: $48,597
Avg. debt at graduation: $20,951
After finishing in third place in our rankings consistently since February 2008, Virginia finally climbed to second place. Credit higher test scores this year and a gentle increase in total cost. The Charlottesville school's 87% four-year graduation rate is the highest on our list. And UVA is one of only two schools in our rankings to meet 100% of financial need (first-ranked UNC Chapel Hill is the other). In-state students pay just $5,464, on average, after factoring in need.
3. University of Florida
Undergrad enrollment: 32,598
Student-faculty ratio: 21:1
Graduation rate: 4-yr., 59%; 6-yr., 84%
Annual in-state cost: $16,593
Annual out-of-state cost: $38,870
Avg. debt at graduation: $16,841
Although UF dropped one place in our rankings this year, it continues to score high on both cost and academic measures. Students stick around, with only 5% leaving after freshman year. And although Florida is a big school -- with 16 colleges, more than 150 research centers and institutes, and the largest undergraduate enrollment in our top ten -- it's still selective, with a 43% admittance rate.
[More from Kiplinger: 10 Best Values in Out-of-State Public Colleges]
4. College of William and Mary
Undergrad enrollment: 6,071
Student-faculty ratio: 12:1
Graduation rate: 4-yr., 85%; 6-yr., 91%
Annual in-state cost: $23,950
Annual out-of-state cost: $47,724
Avg. debt at graduation: $20,835
Small and highly competitive, this so-called "public Ivy" admits some of the cleverest students in our rankings: 43% scored 700 or higher on the verbal portion of the SAT, and 37% earned 700 or higher on the math portion. An enviable ratio of 12 students per faculty member helps keep these brainiacs engaged. Total cost is on the high side compared with other state schools, but with 85% of students graduating within four years, it's unlikely that you’ll pay for an extra year.