These top ten universities represent not only some of the most renowned institutions in the world but also our definition of value, thanks to their high-quality academics and generous financial aid.
All offer need-based aid that brings the price of admission, on average, to less than half the sticker price; three of the schools also award generous merit aid.
Unlike liberal arts colleges, which focus on undergraduate education, these and other universities offer a range of degrees, such as MAs, PhDs and JDs.
1. Yale University
Location: New Haven, Conn.
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,405
Total annual cost: $58,550
Average annual need-based aid: $43,115
Average net cost: $15,435
Yale takes top honors in our list, thanks to its outstanding quality and lavish need-based financial aid. Yale's 7% admission rate is one of the most competitive in the country. Its $20.8 billion endowment allows the school to meet 100% of need for all students who qualify, at an average of about $43,000. The campus provides a variety of classic architecture, in styles ranging from Victorian Gothic and Moorish Revival to modern-day designs by Louis Kahn and Cesar Pelli. And Yale continues to expand. A $250 million gift in September will help add two new residential colleges to its current list of 12 and will enable the school to boost its enrollment by 15%.
2. Princeton University
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Location: Princeton, N.J.
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,336
Total annual cost: $56,395
Average annual need-based aid: $35,664
Average net cost: $20,731
This 267-year-old institution, the fourth-oldest in the country, is also one of the most competitive, with an admission rate of 8%. Its academic credentials include a six-to-one student-faculty ratio, a highly accomplished faculty and a brainiac student body (80% of incoming freshmen score 700 or more on their math SAT, and 76% score 700 or more on the verbal portion). Thanks to Princeton's no-loan financial-aid policy -- the first in the country -- students at this Ivy League school keep borrowing to a minimum. The average debt at graduation ($5,096) among those who do borrow is the lowest among our top 100 private universities and top 100 liberal arts colleges.
3. Rice University
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Location: Houston, Tex.
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,848
Total annual cost: $52,741
Average annual need-based aid: $31,820
Average net cost: $20,921
Rice's sticker price continues to be the lowest among our top 20 private universities, and its need-based aid reduces the cost for students who qualify to less than $21,000. Unlike many top-tier institutions, Rice also awards merit aid to a significant percentage of students, at an average of $12,000. Students here benefit from Rice's six-to-one student-faculty ratio, among the lowest for both liberal arts colleges and private universities. Students clearly enjoy their experience at Rice: 96% of freshmen return for sophomore year.
4. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,658
Total annual cost: $57,497
Average annual need-based aid: $40,950
Average net cost: $16,547
The oldest institution of higher education in the country, Harvard maintains its reputation as the most competitive on our list, with an admission rate of 6% and a yield -- the number of students who attend out of those admitted -- of 80%, besting that of its Ivy League peers. Harvard's financial aid (totaling $182 million) is awarded to 63% of its students.
5. Duke University
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Location: Durham, N.C.
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,655
Total annual cost: $59,578
Average annual need-based aid: $37,507
Average net cost: $22,071
This famed research university, located on nearly 9,000 acres in Durham, N.C., is conveniently situated near the renowned Research Triangle Park, where students get practical knowledge in the fields of medicine, engineering and environmental studies. Duke's academic standards are stellar, and its financial aid is generous: After need-based aid, the average price drops 63%, to $22,071. The seven-to-one student-faculty ratio means students have plenty of opportunity to interact with professors, who are also top researchers in their fields.
6. Columbia University
Location: New York, N.Y.
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,068
Total annual cost: $62,807
Average annual need-based aid: $41,207
Average net cost: $21,600
This Ivy League institution, located in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, has the highest graduation rates on our top ten list (91% graduate in four years, and 95% graduate in five years). It's also the most expensive. But its need-based financial aid allows students who qualify to get a top-notch education at about one-third of the sticker price, on average. Virtually all freshman students return for their sophomore year. Columbia also makes the grade for having strong academic support (the student-faculty ratio is six-to-one) and a competitive admission rate of 7%.
7. Stanford University
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Location: Stanford, Cal.
Undergraduate enrollment: 7,063
Total annual cost: $57,911
Average annual need-based aid: $39,897
Average net cost: $18,014
Situated between San Jose and San Francisco in Silicon Valley, Stanford has established itself as a top research university with a strong entrepreneurial culture. It's one of the most competitive on our top ten list (along with Yale, Harvard and Columbia), with an admit rate of 7%. The low student-faculty ratio (five-to-one) ensures that students get personalized instruction from its faculty, and 98% of freshmen return for sophomore year.
8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,503
Total annual cost: $57,242
Average annual need-based aid: $35,993
Average net cost: $21,249
With 14 Nobel laureates, 22 MacArthur Fellows and four Pulitzer Prize winners currently among the faculty, MIT is world-renowned as the training ground for the scientific elite. As you would expect, 94% of incoming freshmen scored 700 or higher on the math SAT, and the admit rate is a competitive 9% (the lower the number, the better). MIT's mascot is the beaver (as is Caltech's), regarded as nature's engineer, and students at both schools stay as busy as one.
9. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
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Location: Pasadena, Cal.
Undergraduate enrollment: 997
Total annual cost: $55,368
Average annual need-based aid: $34,831
Average net cost: $20,537
Recognized for its top-flight astrophysics and engineering programs (it operates NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), this preeminent tech school makes our top ten for its smart student body (99% of incoming freshmen scored 700 or higher on their math SAT), its three-to-one student-faculty ratio and its low student debt on graduation ($15,090 among students who borrow). Known for its accomplished faculty, which includes 32 Nobel laureates, Caltech is less known for its role as a certified olive-oil distributor. The school has hosted olive festivals each fall since 2007, collecting as much as 2,600 pounds of olives from the trees lining Olive Walk.
10. University of Pennsylvania
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Location: Philadelphia, Pa.
Undergraduate enrollment: 9,682
Total annual cost: $60,002
Average annual need-based aid: $36,048
Average net cost: $23,954
Inspired by founder Benjamin Franklin's words -- "an inclination...to serve mankind" -- this Ivy League institution has received national recognition for being a leader in encouraging its students to participate in community service. Strong academics, including a student-faculty ratio of six-to-one, and hefty need-based financial aid give students two good reasons to stick around: 98% of freshmen return for their sophomore year.