When it comes to college costs, the price tag often has little resemblance to what students actually pay. The net price -- the annual cost in tuition, fees, room, board and books after need and merit-based aid -- at private institutions is typically about half the sticker price.
These ten schools from our annual rankings of the best private college values do better than typical. Although the majority of them have five-figure sticker prices (at three schools, the sticker price approaches $60,000), each has a net price of less than $17,000 after need-based aid is figured in. Students who borrow from these schools walk away with less -- often much less -- than the average student debt of about $27,000.
As you click through the slides, expect to see a diverse group of schools. Six are liberal arts colleges, and four are private universities, in regions around the country. Enrollments are as small as 400 and as large as 30,000. Several of the schools appear in the bottom half of our overall rankings; three are among the top five.
1. Berea College
Rachid Hogerhuis via Wikimedia Commons
Location: Berea, Ky.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,658
Total annual cost: $7,920
Avg. need-based aid: $3,469
Avg. net cost: $4,451
Kiplinger's rank: #63 among liberal arts colleges
The secret to Berea's super-affordable net price is that the school awards each admitted student a full four-year tuition scholarship. Room, board, fees and books may be covered by other scholarships or through loans and savings. Berea Mountaineers shell out less than $5,000, on average, for their education, and students who borrow graduate with just $7,224 in average debt. Berea admits only students with financial need. More than half come from families where neither parent has a college degree.
2. Brigham Young University
Mwilson3 via Wikimedia Commons
Location: Provo, Utah
Undergraduate enrollment: 31,060
Total annual cost: $17,942 (non-Mormon); $13,092 (Mormon)
Avg. need-based aid: $4,603
Avg. net cost: $13,339 (non-Mormon); $8,489 (Mormon)
Kiplinger's rank: #32 among private universities
Located in the Utah Valley, Brigham Young University is probably best-known for serving the Mormon community. The school is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and members get an almost $5,000 tuition break. But both Mormons and non-Mormons pay less than $18,000 to attend the institution. Fewer than one-third of students borrow, and those who do borrow graduate with an average debt of less than $15,000.
3. Principia College
Courtesy of Principia College
Location: Elsah, Ill.
Undergraduate enrollment: 489
Total annual cost: $37,480
Avg. need-based aid: $22,681
Avg. net cost: $14,799
Kiplinger's rank: #56 among liberal arts colleges
Perched on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, this tiny liberal arts college keeps its net price below $15,000. Although it's not affiliated with the Christian Science church, the faith is a large part of the university culture. Principia is surrounded by small towns, but St. Louis is 45 minutes away, on the other side of the river. Students who borrow graduate with less than $22,000 in debt, better than the national average.
4. Yale University
Location: New Haven, Conn.
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,405
Total annual cost: $58,550
Avg. need-based aid: $43,115
Avg. net cost: $15,435
Kiplinger's rank: #1 among private universities
Our top-ranked private university for the second consecutive year has an average net price that comes in at just over $15,000. For those who gain entry (only 7% of applicants), Yale meets 100% of need and extends need-based aid to families earning as much as $200,000 per year. Just 17% of undergraduates borrow, and they graduate with a little more than $10,000 in debt, on average.
5. Amherst College
Daderot via Wikimedia Commons
Location: Amherst, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,817
Total annual cost: $59,714
Avg. need-based aid: $43,424
Avg. net cost: $16,290
Kiplinger's rank: #5 among liberal arts colleges
At almost $60,000, the sticker price at Amherst might look shocking, but $43,424 in need-based aid brings the average net price to just $16,290. Less than one-third of students borrow to attend this top-notch liberal arts college, and they graduate with an average debt that's less than $15,000.
6. Christendom College
Courtesy of Christendom College
Location: Front Royal, Va.
Undergraduate enrollment: 388
Total annual cost: $31,650
Avg. need-based aid: $15,192
Avg. net cost: $16,458
Kiplinger's rank: #49 among liberal arts colleges
Overlooking the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, this small, Roman Catholic college provides an 86-hour core curriculum that includes such subjects as theology, philosophy, literature, political science, mathematics and the natural sciences. Founded in 1977, the school attracts students from 45 states and seven foreign countries. It provides generous need-based aid to 77% of its students and merit aid to 96% of undergraduates without need. Christendom meets 90% of financial need in no-loan packages averaging more than $15,000.
7. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,658
Total annual cost: $57,497
Avg. need-based aid: $40,950
Avg. net cost: $16,547
Kiplinger's rank: #4 among private universities
America's oldest college also has one of the most generous financial-aid packages among Ivy League schools, thanks in part to its huge endowment, valued at $33 billion as of September. With an average need-based-aid of more than $40,000, the net cost drops by a sharp 71%. Harvard meets 100% of financial need and provides it to 63% of undergraduates. The school recently launched a $6.5 billion capital campaign -- the largest fund-raising effort to date in higher education if successful -- that would, in part, help fund research into neuroscience, stem cell science and energy.
8. Wofford College
PegasusRacer28 via Wikimedia Commons
Location: Spartanburg, S.C.
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,568
Total annual cost: $45,795
Avg. need-based aid: $28,915
Avg. net cost: $16,880
Kiplinger's rank: #32 among liberal arts colleges
This liberal arts college, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, offers 25 majors and 17 minors in fields including economics, intercultural studies and computer science. Founded in 1854, the pre-Civil War college provides generous need-based financial aid, dropping the sticker price by nearly two-thirds, on average, from $45,795 to less than $17,000. Merit aid averaging $14,769 helps two-thirds of the students who do not qualify for need-based aid.
9. Centenary College of Louisiana
Billy Hathorn at en.wikipedia
Location: Shreveport, La.
Undergraduate enrollment: 698
Total annual cost: $42,175
Avg. need-based aid: $25,230
Avg. net cost: $16,945
Kiplinger's rank: #74 among private universities
The oldest chartered liberal arts college west of the Mississippi River, this small school is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. More than half of its students qualify for need-based aid, and half of students without need qualify for merit aid. Centenary meets 74% of need. Need-based aid helps drive down the total annual cost to students who qualify by 60%, making this one of the most affordable colleges in the South on our combined list of private universities and liberal arts colleges.
10. Thomas Aquinas College
Courtesy of Thomas Aquinas College
Location: Santa Paula, Cal.
Undergraduate enrollment: 370
Total annual cost: $32,450
Avg. need-based aid: $15,498
Avg. net cost: $16,952
Kiplinger's rank: #41 among liberal arts colleges
For 42 years, this small, Roman Catholic college has provided a curriculum based on "the great books" -- by its description, "seminal texts that have, for good or for ill, animated Western civilization . . . [speaking] to the reality at the core of human experience." Teachers guide small groups of students (the student-faculty ratio is 12-to-one) in Socratic discussions. Thomas Aquinas's classics-based education is affordable, too. Its modest sticker price of $32,450 -- one of the lowest on our list -- drops nearly 50%, on average, after need-based aid is applied. Although it doesn't offer merit aid, Thomas Aquinas does meet 100% of need; 81% of students qualify for this aid.