Best Values in Public Colleges 2011

Jane Bennett Clark, Senior Associate Editor
January 12, 2011

Despite shrinking budgets, these 100 schools deliver a stellar education at an affordable price.

As colleges and universities across the U.S. struggle with shrinking budgets and increased enrollment, here's the takeaway for soon-to-matriculate students: Look for schools that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked Kiplinger's No. 1 best value for public colleges and universities for a remarkable 10 times running, is a prime example. Carolina's admission rate remains among the lowest on our annual list; its students are among the most competitive; and its in-state cost, at $17,000, is not much higher than the average price ($16,140) for all public universities. For students who qualify for need-based aid, the total price for this top-tier university drops to an average of $7,020.

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Carolina's performance is all the more exceptional considering the current climate for public higher education. Over the past few years, states have cut funding for colleges and universities by tens of millions of dollars. Enrollment and the demand for financial aid have surged. Federal stimulus funding, which provided crucial support, will soon run out, and Medicaid continues to deplete state coffers. "Everywhere you look, there is less money," says Shirley Ort, director of the office of scholarships and student aid at Chapel Hill. Unlike past shortfalls, this one will likely affect higher education in "significant and probably permanent ways," says Charles Lenth, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Measuring Value

In our annual assessment of best value, we identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best BA for the buck. We start with academic quality, including the school's student-faculty ratio, its admission rate and its four-year graduation rate. We then factor in affordability, such as the total cost of attendance with or without financial aid.

Binghamton University (SUNY), ranked sixth overall, takes the No. 1 spot for out-of-state value for the third time in a row. It's an honor the school's president, C. Peter Magrath, might prefer to forgo. He complains that tuition is too low for a university whose admission rate, at 33%, rivals top schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill. Out-of-state students pay a total of $27,535 to attend Binghamton, less than the national average of $28,130. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal to transfer control over tuition -- and increases -- to the SUNY schools but will probably revisit the issue, says Magrath. Memo to non-New Yorkers: Grab this deal now.

Perennial stars in our rankings include the University of Florida (No. 2) and the New College of Florida (No. 11), both of which offer strong academics at a sticker price below $15,000. New College, a tiny honors school with a spectacular view of Sarasota Bay, drops the price to less than half that amount for in-staters who qualify for need-based aid. For a rock-bottom $4,545, students get the view, the company of other highly competitive students and a 10-1 student-faculty ratio. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (No. 48) earns top honors in the student-faculty category, with a ratio of 8-1.

Two Virginia schools deserve special Kiplinger kudos for consistently maintaining their position among our top five since our first rankings, in 1998. The University of Virginia (No. 3) and the College of William and Mary (No. 4) each draw high-scoring incoming freshmen and post the highest four-year graduation rates on our list, delivering degrees to more than 80% of their students in four years and more than 90% in six. UVA also brings its cost after aid to students with need to less than $6,000.

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Virtually all of the schools we list raised their price in 2010-11, but the University of Maryland, which maintained a tuition freeze for four straight years, kept this year's total cost increase to less than $600. The first-class flagship continues its march up our rankings, moving from No. 8 last year to No. 5 in 2010-11. As for the lowest sticker price, that distinction belongs to the University of North Carolina at Asheville (No. 58). In-state students pay only $12,762. Appalachian State (No. 35), in Boone, N.C., runs just a few dollars more, at $12,775.

Faced with a state budget crisis of epic proportions, University of California schools were forced to bump up costs by as much as $3,500 a year for in-state students and more than $4,000 for out-of-state students, pushing several UC schools past the $50,000 mark. Despite the price hikes, UC schools stand out for their relatively low average debt and impressively high six-year graduation rates. Out-of-staters who can afford to pay UC's private-school prices will find opportunity in California's crisis: UC schools have opened the doors wide to nonresidents, the better to collect that out-of-state tuition premium.

Skimming the Cream

Be it perspicacity or plain luck, Carolina finished a major capital campaign at the end of 2007, just before the recession. Still, the current austerity has meant raising tuition by almost $1,000 this year and pruning operating costs to the tune of $36 million annually, mostly by streamlining administrative expenses. "Efficiency enhances our ability to meet our academic goals," says Chancellor Holden Thorp. The university recently hired 120 junior faculty members, expanded its honors program and introduced an enrichment program for top freshmen. "Decisions were made with an eye to providing students not just with a low-cost education but also with a great one," says Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions.

Carolina is willing to pony up to ensure affordability. "One of the things that have helped us remain a good value is the commitment the university has to funding need-based aid," says UNC's Ort. Carolina continues to meet the full need of students who qualify despite a 35% increase over the past two years in the number of students who qualify for financial aid. Financial aid offsets the tuition increase for students with need.

Such policies allow UNC to attract the best students that North Carolina (and the country) has to offer -- and Thorp intends to keep it that way. He aims to prevent in-state students from straying to elite competitors, such as Harvard or UVA, and has been known to call prospective students to make his case. "It's great to say to a parent, 'Your daughter is a great student. Please put her on the phone.' "

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Jerry Bowens, a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., found his way to Chapel Hill not by a phone call but through the Carolina College Advising Corps, which helps North Carolina high school students get through the college admissions process. At Bowens's high school, "a lot of people felt lost and didn't go to college," he says. With the adviser's help, Bowens not only was admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill but also scored a full ride through the Carolina Covenant, which provides no-loan financial aid to students in the program. Says Bowens, who participates in a student hip-hop group, plays a main role in General College (the campus soap opera) and plans to study abroad, "Being here, finding a niche, things that cater to my interests -- it's a perfect fit for me."

How We Rank the Schools

Kiplinger's bases its rankings on a combination of academics and affordability. We start with data from more than 500 public four-year schools, provided by Peterson's/Nelnet, then add our own reporting.

We narrow the list to about 120 schools based on measures of academic quality -- including SAT or ACT scores, admission and retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four- and six-year graduation rates, which most schools reported for the class that entered in 2003.

We then rank each school based on cost and financial aid. In our scoring system, academic quality carries more weight than costs (almost two-thirds of the total). To assess costs, we look at the total expenses for in-state students (tuition, mandatory fees, room and board, and books); the average cost for a student with need after subtracting grants (but not loans); the average cost for a student without need after subtracting non-need-based grants; the average percentage of need met by aid; and the average debt per student at graduation. (In the table, aid is need-based assistance.)

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To determine out-of-state rankings, we run the academic-quality and expense numbers again, this time using total costs for out-of-state residents and average costs after aid.

Our rankings focus on traditional four-year schools with broad-based curricula. As a result, schools that offer great value but focus on special or narrow academic programs, such as the military service academies, are excluded. Cornell University, best known as a member of the Ivy League, is another exception. Four of Cornell's colleges are part of the privately endowed university, which we consider a private institution. But three of Cornell's undergraduate colleges are land-grant state schools that cost much less -- about $23,500 a year for tuition and fees.

Best Values in Public Colleges 2011

©Dan Sears/UNC-Chapel Hill

1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Undergraduate Enrollment: 17,981
SAT: 73% scored 600 or higher on verbal/math; ACT: 83% scored 24 or higher
Student/Faculty Ratio: 14
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 74%/87%
Total In-State Cost: $17,000
Total Out-of-State Cost: $35,614
Average Debt at Graduation: $14,262

This outstanding research institution delivers its education for a total cost in-state of $17,000, only a little more than the average price -- $16,140 -- for public institutions nationally. It also offers generous financial aid to students with need, bringing the average cost after need-based aid to just over $7,000. Founded in 1789, Carolina attracts world-class faculty and leads the pack among public universities for producing Rhodes scholars.

©Rob C. Witzel/AP

2. University of Florida

Undergraduate Enrollment: 33,628
SAT: 61%; ACT: 71%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 20
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 58%/83%
Total In-State Cost: $14,684
Total Out-of-State Cost: $36,961
Average Debt at Graduation: $15,932

With the lowest in-state cost -- $14,684 -- of our top-10 ranked schools, UF represents a bargain even for families who don't qualify for financial aid. Most in-state students do qualify for assistance, thanks to the merit-based program known as Bright Futures. At $9,759, the cost after non-need-based aid is among the lowest on our list.

©University of Virginia News Service/AP

3. University of Virginia

Undergraduate Enrollment:15,464
SAT: 78% ACT: 84% scored 24 or higher
Student/Faculty Ratio: 16
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 85%/93%
Total In-State Cost: $20,647
Total Out-of-State Cost: $43,593
Average Debt at Graduation: $19,939

Also known as Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village (as in founder Thomas Jefferson), UVA posts the highest graduation rates in our rankings and offers the most generous need-based financial aid. The average need-based package -- $14,955 -- reduces the price for students who qualify to a bargain-basement $5,692.


4. College of William and Mary

Undergraduate Enrollment: 5,836
SAT: 83%; ACT: 85%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 11
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 82%/91%
Total In-State Cost: $21,972
Total Out-of-State Cost: $42,996
Average Debt at Graduation: $18,410

Second only to the University of Virginia in graduation rates, this small, historic institution attracts high-achieving students and gives them the luxury of learning in small classes. The 11:1 student-faculty ratio is among the lowest on our list.


5. University of Maryland-College Park

Undergraduate Enrollment: 26,493
SAT: 67%; ACT: 82%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 18
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 63%/82%
Total In-State Cost: $19,042
Total Out-of-State Cost: $35,455
Average Debt at Graduation: $20,256

Maryland has held the line on costs, keeping the total for in-state students to $19,040, only a few hundred dollars over last year's cost. The school's proximity to Washington, D.C., its engineering and journalism programs, and its top athletic program are among the strengths that keep Maryland on a winning streak.

©Jonathan Cohen/Binghamton University

6. Binghamton University (SUNY)

Undergraduate Enrollment: 11,704
SAT: 67%; ACT: 85%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 20
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 70%/81%
Total In-State Cost: $19,125
Total Out-of-State Cost: $27,535
Average Debt at Graduation: $14,560

No. 1 on our list for out-of-state value, Binghamton charges a total of $27,535 to out-of-state students, less than the average out-of-state cost ($28,130) for public schools nationwide. The university admits only 33% of its applicants, making it one of the most competitive schools in our top 100.


7. SUNY Geneseo

Undergraduate Enrollment: 5,495
SAT: 80%; ACT: 87%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 19
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 64%/78%
Total In-State Cost: $17,393
Total Out-of-State Cost: $25,803
Average Debt at Graduation: $21,000

This small honors school in western New York vies with Binghamton University for best out-of-state value. Its total cost for out-of-staters comes in at $25,803, a bit lower than Binghamton's, and the admission rate is a competitive 35%. Incoming freshmen keep the brainiac quotient high at Geneseo: SAT scores are among the best on our list.


8. University of Georgia

Undergraduate Enrollment: 26,142
SAT: 58%; ACT: 65%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 18
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 51%/81%
Total In-State Cost: $18,226
Total Out-of-State Cost: $36,436
Average Debt at Graduation: $14,766

In-state residents who meet the academic requirements qualify for this flagship university's Hope scholarship, which covers tuition, mandatory fees and books. Not surprisingly, average debt on graduation is a relatively low $14,766. UGA students also get the benefit of a great college town -- Athens -- and a top-notch athletic program. The Bulldogs have scored 25 national championships since 1999.

©Daniel J. Simanek

9. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Undergraduate Enrollment: 30,343
ACT: 93%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 17
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 50%/82%
Total In-State Cost: $17,777
Total Out-of-State Cost: $33,027
Average Debt at Graduation: $21,552

Strong test scores among incoming freshmen and a relatively low sticker price for both in-staters ($17,777) and out-of-staters ($33,027) help put this school in our top 10 for the first time since 2000. Unlike many schools, where in-state costs jumped by at least $1,000 over last year's amount, Wisconsin kept its increase to only about $400.

©Ted S. Warren/AP

10. University of Washington

Undergraduate Enrollment: 32,718
SAT: 48%; ACT: 67%
Student/Faculty Ratio: 12
Graduation Rate 4-yr./6-yr.: 54%/81%
Total In-State Cost: $19,135
Total Out-of-State Cost: $36,342
Average Debt at Graduation: $16,800

Despite painful, ongoing budget cuts, U-Dub maintains its position in our top 10 thanks to a still-moderate $19,135 sticker price for in-state students and a student-faculty ratio (12:1) that's more typical of a small, liberal-arts college than a major research institution.

See the Full List: 100 Best Values in Public Colleges


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