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10 Best Values in U.S. Colleges, 2017

Kaitlin Pitsker, Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance


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To help you sort through your college choices, we present the creme de la creme of our annual list of best value colleges and universities. These 10 schools are the top-scoring schools in our combined ranking, which compares private universities, private liberal arts colleges and public colleges (using-out-of-state costs) to help you see your options side by side. As always, we look for schools that meet our definition of best value: a blend of academic quality and affordability. Among our criteria for academic quality are a competitive admission rate, a high four-year graduation rate and a low student-faculty ratio. We look for schools with a reasonable price tag, generous financial aid for students who qualify, and low student debt at graduation. We've also included future earnings data, based on the median earnings of workers who started at a particular college 10 years earlier, to give you an idea of what attending a particular institution may mean for a student's post-graduation salary.

In 2016-17, the average sticker price of a private college or university is $45,370, according to the College Board. The average sticker price for out-of-state students at public colleges is $35,370. Despite their higher price tags, private liberal arts colleges and private universities dominate the top spots on our combined list. Private colleges perform well in our rankings because they typically have higher graduation rates and more generous financial aid than public institutions - making a private education at some colleges more affordable than the in-state cost at a public school. But attending a public college - even one outside of your home state - can be a great value, too. Please take a look.

1. Swarthmore College


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Location: Swarthmore, Pa.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,586

Four-year grad rate: 87%

Total annual cost: $64,840

Avg. need-based aid: $44,256

Avg. graduating debt: $18,262

10-year salary yardstick: $48,500

High-quality academics and generous financial aid help Swarthmore College move up four places this year to head our 2017 combined best values list. This small college, located 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia, also leads our list of liberal arts colleges for the sixth time. Despite an annual sticker price of nearly $65,000, generous need-based financial aid, awarded to more than half of students, makes Swarthmore surprisingly affordable for many families. And Swarthmore's financial aid package keeps loans off the table: All financial aid is awarded in the form of scholarships and grants. One-third of students still borrow, but the average debt at graduation among those students is about 40% less than the national average ($31,400) among private school borrowers.

This 152-year-old school with Quaker roots is highly competitive. Swarthmore accepts only 12% of applicants. Nearly two-thirds of incoming freshmen score 700 or higher on the critical-reading and math portions of the SAT. Once on campus, students can choose from more than 600 courses in more than 40 areas of study or select additional courses through the school's agreement with nearby Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges as well as the University of Pennsylvania. Outside of class, Swatties can explore the school's 425-acre campus, which includes Scott Arboretum and Crum Creek, or hop a train from the station on the edge of campus for the 30-minute ride to Philly's bustling Center City.

SEE ALSO: 10 Best Values in Public Colleges, 2017

2. Davidson College


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Location: Davidson, N.C.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,784

Four-year grad rate: 90%

Total annual cost: $62,923

Avg. need-based aid: $40,140

Avg. graduating debt: $19,929

10-year salary yardstick: $51,800

After breaking into our combined top 10 list last year, Davidson moves up two places this year to nab the second spot on our combined list. This tiny liberal arts college's 22% admission rate and 90% four-year graduation rate have both improved in recent years, aiding the school's climb. Davidson's broad-based liberal arts curriculum allows students to select from more than 850 courses each year, with 26 academic majors, ranging from chemistry to religion. Life on Davidson's 665-acre campus is governed by the school's honor code, which emphasizes responsible behavior and trust between students and faculty. More than 80% of Davidson graduates go on to earn graduate or professional degrees.

The Wildcats have something else to cheer about: The school's average need-based aid award has more than kept pace with increases in the school's sticker price. And financial aid awards from Davidson don't saddle students with debt. In 2007, the school became the first liberal arts college to eliminate loans from financial aid packages. Among the 27% of students who do borrow, the average debt is about $11,500 less than the national average among private school borrowers.

3. Princeton University


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Location: Princeton, N.J.

Undergraduate enrollment: 5,402

Four-year grad rate: 90%

Total annual cost: $61,140

Avg. need-based aid: $44,890

Avg. graduating debt: $8,577

10-year salary yardstick: $77,900

Outstanding academics, generous financial aid and low student debt help Princeton University excel in our combined rankings. This Ivy League institution also earns top honors on our list of private universities for the third time in as many years.

Princeton's slim 7% admission rate makes it one of the most selective schools on our list of 300 colleges. Nearly 70% of accepted students choose to enroll, and 97% of freshmen return for their sophomore year. Further solidifying the school's place on our list: impressive test scores among incoming freshmen (72% score 700 or higher on the critical-reading portion of the SAT, and 79% score 700 or higher on the math portion) and the highest four-year graduation rate in our combined top 10. Once on Princeton's 500-acre campus, about 50 miles from both Philadelphia and New York City, students can choose academic courses in 36 areas of study and sample some 300 student organizations.

An average need-based aid award of nearly $45,000 cuts the school's annual sticker price by 73%. And Princeton's definition of financial need may surprise you: Some of the nearly 60% of students who receive need-based aid come from families with an annual income of $250,000 a year or more. At Princeton, borrowing isn't part of the deal. In 2001, the school became the first institution to establish a no-loan policy. Roughly one in six families report borrowing on their own, but the average debt for students who do borrow is among the lowest on our list of 300 colleges.

USE OUR TOOL: Find the Best College for You

4. Duke University


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Location: Durham, N.C.

Undergraduate enrollment: 6,639

Four-year grad rate: 86%

Total annual cost: $66,963

Avg. need-based aid: $44,725

Avg. graduating debt: $19,104

10-year salary yardstick: $76,700

Despite having the highest sticker price on our combined top 10 list, Duke University climbs seven places this year thanks to the school's top-notch academics and generous financial aid awards. The Blue Devils rack up points in our rankings for strong academics, including a competitive 11% admission rate, high test scores among incoming freshmen (two-thirds scores above 700 on the critical-reading portion of the SAT, and 73% score 700 or higher on the math portion) and a six-to-one student-faculty ratio, which ensures that students get plenty of face time with their professors. More than half of undergraduates complete faculty-mentored research projects, and 83% of students go beyond their major to earn at least one more major, minor or certificate.

On the financial side, Duke's average need-based aid award cuts the school's sticker price by 67%. Like all schools in our top 10, Duke meets 100% of students' demonstrated financial need. About one-third of students borrow, but the average debt of $19,104 is about 40% less than the national average for private school borrowers.

5. Washington and Lee University


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Location: Lexington, Va.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,854

Four-year grad rate: 88%

Total annual cost: $61,447

Avg. need-based aid: $42,322

Avg. graduating debt: $21,683

10-year salary yardstick: $72,900

Ample financial aid awards, combined with strong academics, help this small liberal arts college land the fifth spot on our combined best values list. More than 40% of students qualify for need-based aid, and the average need-based aid award cuts the school's sticker price by more than one-third. W&L, which was named for Virginians George Washington and Robert E. Lee, also offers merit aid to 13% of students who don't receive need-based aid, at an average of $33,756 per year in non-need-based aid for students who qualify.

The school's campus, which is nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in the historic town of Lexington, Va., attracts exemplary students. Nearly 90% of incoming freshmen score 30 or higher on the ACT, and the eight-to-one student-faculty ratio generally translates into small classes. Students can select from 37 academic majors and join any of more than 130 student organizations. Students abide by the school's honor code, which allows students to proctor their own exams, and a "speaking tradition" that encourages students and faculty greet everyone they pass on campus.

SEE ALSO: 11 Ways to Cut the Cost of College Tuition

6. Harvard University


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Location: Cambridge, Mass.

Undergraduate enrollment: 6,699

Four-year grad rate: 86%

Total annual cost: $64,565

Avg. need-based aid: $46,409

Avg. graduating debt: $16,723

10-year salary yardstick: $95,500

Outstanding academics - including a highly competitive 6% admission rate and high test scores among incoming freshmen - help this Ivy League institute secure its place on our best values list. Of the students who are offered admission, 80% of students enroll (the highest yield in our top 10 on the combined list). Harvard also boasts some of the highest test scores in our combined top 10: 78% of students score 700 or higher on the critical-reading portion of the SAT, and 79% score similarly high marks on the math section.

Harvard's $35.7 billion endowment helps the school meet 100% of financial aid for students who qualify; nearly 60% of students receive need-based aid. Generous need-based aid awards, which on average cut the school's annual sticker price by 72%, can make a Harvard education one of the best bargains in higher education. Like many of our top contenders, Harvard doesn't include loans in financial aid awards. About three-fourths of families avoid borrowing - and the average debt among students who do borrow is about half of the national average for private school borrowers.

7. Thomas Aquinas College


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Location: Santa Paula, Calif.

Undergraduate enrollment: 377

Four-year grad rate: 81%

Total annual cost: $32,500

Avg. need-based aid: $14,977

Avg. graduating debt: $16,901

10-year salary yardstick: $30,200

Thomas Aquinas College's sticker price - which is about half that of many private colleges on our best values list - and generous financial aid awards propel this pint-sized, Catholic liberal arts college up 15 places on this year's combined best values list. A tuition freeze that has been in place since the 2013-14 academic year and will continue through at least the 2017-18 academic year has kept the school's annual sticker price, including room and board, from climbing. And yet few families will pay the sticker price - 75% of students qualify for need-based aid, and the average award brings the school's net price to $17,523 per year.

Located 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles on the edge of Los Padres National Forest, Thomas Aquinas combines a classic curriculum with a religious emphasis that adheres to the morals and traditions of the Catholic Church. The school's "great books" education focuses on analyzing the works of Aristotle, Homer and Shakespeare, among others. Thomas Aquinas admits 75% of applicants, and 56% of those who are admitted enroll.

SEE ALSO: 10 Colleges Where Tuition Is Free

8. Vanderbilt University


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Location: Nashville, Tenn.

Undergraduate enrollment: 6,883

Four-year grad rate: 87%

Total annual cost: $62,598

Avg. need-based aid: $40,267

Avg. graduating debt: $21,506

10-year salary yardstick: $60,700

Located a mile and a half southwest of downtown Nashville on a parklike campus with ancient oaks and magnolia trees, Vanderbilt University racks up points in our ranking for its strong academics, including a competitive 12% admission rate, high test scores among incoming freshmen (92% score 30 or higher on the ACT) and an eight-to-one student-faculty ratio. Students can select from 69 majors, ranging from biomedical engineering and child development to economics and musical arts, and choose among more than 510 student clubs and organizations.

Thanks to generous need-based aid awards and the school's no-loan policy, more than three-fourths of students graduate without taking out student loans. Among the 22% of students who report borrowing, the average debt at graduation is about $10,000 less than the national average. Nearly half of students qualify for need-based aid, and the average need-based aid award reduces the school's annual sticker price by 64%. The school also awards non-need-based aid to 20% of students who don't qualify for need-based aid.

9. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.

Undergraduate enrollment: 18,415

Four-year grad rate: 82%

Total out-of-state annual cost: $46,576

Avg. need-based aid: $17,244

Avg. graduating debt: $20,127

10-year salary yardstick: $51,000

The Tar Heels continue their climb on the combined best values list, moving to number nine on this year's list. Chapel Hill also deserves special kudos for topping our list of public colleges for in-state students for the 16th straight time - a clean sweep of Kiplinger's public rankings. Solid academics, including a 30% admission rate and an 82% four-year graduation rate, combined with modest cost increases and robust financial aid awards, help this public research university continue to be a sweet deal.

Although UNC's annual out-of-state sticker price is higher than the national average for out-of-state cost of attendance at four-year public colleges ($35,370), need-based financial aid awards cut the school's annual out-of-state sticker price by 37%. Carolina and the University of Virginia (number 46 on our combined list) are the only two public colleges in our rankings to meet 100% of students' demonstrated financial need - and much of this aid is awarded as scholarships and grants (which don't have to be repaid) rather than loans.

SEE ALSO: 10 Best College Majors for Your Career

10. Wellesley College


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Location: Wellesley, Mass.

Undergraduate enrollment: 2,355

Four-year grad rate: 86%

Total out-of-state annual cost: $65,016

Avg. need-based aid: $44,218

Avg. graduating debt: $12,455

10-year salary yardstick: $56,500

This small women's college, with a 500-acre campus that includes a private lake and a golf club, lands on our combined top 10 list this year with an improved four-year graduation rate and strong financial aid awards that help keep student borrowing in check. Wellesley College also stands out for its low, seven-to-one student-faculty ratio, 30% admission rate and an alumni network that has been called "the world's most powerful women's network."

Need-based aid awards, which are awarded to nearly 60% of students, cut the school's annual sticker price by an average of 68%. The school's financial aid awards keep borrowing to a minimum - eliminating or reducing loans for some students, but keeping the total loan amount to no more than $15,200 over four years for all students. About half of Wellesley students report borrowing, but the average debt among graduates who borrow is about 40% of the national average among private school borrowers.

SEE ALSO: 10 Worst College Majors for Your Career

Copyright 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors