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Best Values in Liberal Arts Colleges, 2014

Susannah Snider, Staff Writer, <i>Kiplinger's Personal Finance</i>

Liberal arts colleges focus on undergraduate education. They typically have smaller enrollments than universities and focus on bachelor's degrees.

All the liberal arts colleges on our top-100 list represent Kiplinger's definition of value -- a combination of academic quality and affordability.

These ten institutions stand above the rest for their academic excellence and generous financial aid. (Total annual cost includes tuition, fees, room and board.)

1. Washington and Lee University

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Location: Lexington, Va.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,838

Total cost: $56,557

Average need-based aid: $38,375

Average net cost: $18,182

This is Washington and Lee's first year as number one for best value, after appearing in the top ten for the last six years. The school attracts top students -- nearly half of incoming freshmen score 700 or higher on the verbal or math portion of the SAT -- and the eight-to-one student-faculty ratio means they enjoy ample face time with professors. The school's "speaking tradition" dictates that students and faculty greet everyone they pass on campus. An honor code lets students proctor their own exams.

Washington and Lee's generous need-based financial aid (up 7% from last year) gives it a rankings boost. Its non-need-based aid is generous as well, with an average $35,249 awarded to 13% of students who don't qualify for need-based aid. And the relatively small 3.6% increase in total cost over last year (from $54,612 to $56,557) secured its first-place finish.

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2. Pomona College

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Location: Claremont, Cal.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,607

Total cost: $58,580

Average need-based aid: $37,611

Average net cost: $20,969

If you're looking for an Ivy League-style school among the palm trees of Southern California, check out Pomona College. Our runner-up has alternated between first and second place in our rankings over the past five years, hitting number one most recently in 2011.

Credit Pomona's consistent rankings success to its stellar academics. The 13% admissions rate is tied with Amherst for most competitive in our entire list of top 100 liberal arts colleges. And Pomona's no-loan financial-aid policy keeps average debt for students who borrow to less than $16,000.

3. Swarthmore College

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Location: Swarthmore, Pa.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,552

Total cost: $59,080

Average need-based aid: $37,651

Average net cost: $21,429

Last year's number-one school dropped to third place this year. But that doesn't mean this Pennsylvania college isn't a first-rate value.

The campus offers green lawns and wooded walkways along with plenty of internship and networking opportunities in nearby Philadelphia. An eight-to-one student-faculty ratio gives Swarthmore students plenty of access to professors. Students who borrow leave Swarthmore with about $20,000 in average debt.

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4. Williams College

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Location: Williamstown, Mass.

Undergraduate enrollment: 2,052

Total cost: $59,670

Average need-based aid: $40,511

Average net cost: $19,159

Up two places from last year, Williams College beats every other top ten college in several categories of academic quality.

Those measures include the lowest student-faculty ratio (seven-to-one) and the highest four-year graduation rate (tied with Bowdoin at 91%). Plus, graduates who borrowed have the lowest average debt of our top ten, just $12,749.

5. Amherst College

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Location: Amherst, Mass.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,817

Total cost: $59,714

Average need-based aid: $43,424

Average net cost: $16,290

It's tough to get into Amherst -- its 13% admit rate is tied with our second-place school for most competitive -- but the brainy few who gain admission are well looked after. A 98% freshman retention rate shows that most first-years stick around for a second term.

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6. Bowdoin College

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Location: Brunswick, Maine

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,839

Total cost: $58,650

Average need-based aid: $36,492

Average net cost: $22,158

The winters may be cold at our sixth-place school. But most students stay with it for four years: 91% of Bowdoin Polar Bears graduate on time.

Competition for admission here is fierce. Bowdoin's 16% admit rate means that only top students get in, and its yield (the percentage of accepted students who enroll) demonstrates its appeal: Almost half of admitted students decide to attend Bowdoin.

7. Middlebury College

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Location: Middlebury, Vermont

Undergraduate enrollment: 2,516

Total cost: $58,470

Average need-based aid: $36,245

Average net cost: $22,225

Sandwiched between the Green and Adirondack mountain ranges, Middlebury has the largest student body of our top ten schools, enrolling just over 2,500. Its January winter term gives students the opportunity to take an internship, study a single course intensively or study abroad for one month.

Middlebury's $58,470 price tag is steep, but need-based aid makes a big dent in it for the 40% or so of students who qualify. Students who borrow graduate with $17,246 debt, on average.

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8. Davidson College

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Location: Davidson, N.C.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,790

Total cost: $55,683

Average need-based aid: $29,064

Average net cost: $26,619

About 20 miles north of Charlotte, N.C., Davidson has a competitive 25% admission rate. Nearly half of its students qualify for need-based aid. Unlike many top-tier schools, Davidson also awards non-need based aid: This year, 12% of students without need collected an average of almost $22,000.

9. Haverford College

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Location: Haverford, Pa.

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,205

Total cost: $60,430

Average need-based aid: $39,702

Average net cost: $20,728

Haverford's Quaker roots show through its honor code and a decision-making process that values consensus, treating all voices equally.

The smallest of our top ten liberal arts colleges, Haverford also has the highest total cost of our top ten. It eases the tuition burden with substantial need-based aid, awarding students almost $40,000 this year, on average. Haverford has a strong graduation rate: 90% of students collect a diploma within four years. The average debt among students who borrow is about $14,000, significantly below the $27,000 national average.

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10. Grinnell College

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Location: Grinnell, Iowa

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,674

Total cost: $54,554

Average need-based aid: $32,984

Average net cost: $21,570

As the sole Midwestern school in our top 10, Grinnell has a regional reputation as the premier college of choice for bright, motivated students. But its strong academics and affordability keep it competitive on a national stage, bringing in students from nearly every state and 60 countries.

Grinnell moved up seven spots this year, thanks to its admission rate, which moved from 50% to 36% (the lower the admit rate, the better). It also awards substantial merit aid -- nearly $14,000, on average -- to 44% of students who don't qualify for need-based aid.