For kids heading off to Yale, Harvard or one of the nation's other elite institutions, the news couldn't be better. Not only will they get a great education with first-class bragging rights, but they also stand a good chance of paying less than they would have paid in-state at a public university.
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You read that right. Institutions including the Ivies, Caltech, Williams and Swarthmore have lately announced major changes in their financial-aid policies. Among the changes: replacing loans with grants, offering full rides to families at higher income levels and bestowing discounts on families earning well into six figures. At Harvard and Yale, parents earning as much as $180,000 can be almost assured of getting a hefty break on the bill in the next academic year.
All of which brings us to the $64,000 (or more) question: What about the 99.5% of families whose kids won't be at the peak of the academic mountain? That's no small issue as colleges and universities try to decide whether to allocate all of their money to meeting the needs of students who qualify for financial aid or to use some of their funds to attract good students and a diverse student body. Whereas schools with hefty endowments have the luxury -- and the incentive, owing to pressure from Congress -- to dig deep and spread wide, less wealthy schools "face the prospect of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," says Don Crewell, financial-aid director at Caltech.
Meanwhile, pity the families who pay full price for a private education. The cost of a year at a four-year private college rose almost 6% in 2007-08, to an average of $32,307, and topped out at a staggering $50,000-plus. Many parents and students pay every penny, according to the College Board, including those who miss out "because they are unaware of the sources and amounts of student aid available."
That's where Kiplinger's 2008 rankings of private colleges and universities come in. Topped by Caltech among universities and Swarthmore among liberal arts colleges, our exclusive rankings showcase a range of schools with strong academics, generous financial-aid policies and, in some cases, a decent price to begin with.
The rankings also show how your student matches up with incoming freshmen at the schools in our top 100. And we go behind the scenes at two other schools: Princeton, a venerable institution with a groundbreaking financial-aid policy, and Lafayette College, in Easton, Pa., a school that aims high and takes some of its cues -- but not all of them -- from the Ivies.
Tip of the top
If your child excels in math or science and craves close contact with professors, look no further than Caltech, at the top of our university rankings for the second year in a row. This tiny research institution, on a jewel-like campus in Pasadena, offers a three-to-one student-faculty ratio, the lowest among all major universities. Caltech students work side-by-side with Nobel laureates and enjoy occasional lectures by physicist Stephen Hawking, who until recently wintered in a rose-covered cottage on campus.
And students, who number fewer than 1,000, learn from one another, says president Jean-Lou Chameau. "Simply because of our size, Caltech gives a unique opportunity to be among people who are all extremely gifted." How gifted? Start with this year's freshman class, all of whom scored above 700 on the math SAT.
Like many of its counterparts, Caltech recently announced that it will replace loans with grants, piggybacking on an already-generous financial-aid policy that has kept average student debt at graduation to $5,156, about one-fourth of the national average. Starting in fall 2008, students whose families earn $60,000 or less a year will receive grants and work-study to meet their financial need.