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College Rankings

Best Values in Private Colleges -- 2007

These schools offer aid that slashes the cost of a private education.

On an East Coast campus, students with a passion for social justice hold yard sales for Katrina victims and help schoolchildren hone their reading skills. On a campus 3,000 miles away, students with a passion for science research dwarf planets and dark matter. At both colleges, students enjoy a world-class education at prices even families of modest means can afford.

The combination of academic excellence and financial flexibility puts Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, and California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, at the top of Kiplinger's 2007 rankings for the best values among private institutions. This year, we compiled two lists: one for liberal arts colleges, which offer mostly undergraduate programs, and the other for universities, which also offer graduate degrees. We applied the same academic and cost measures to each.

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For Swarthmore, which tops our liberal arts list, the winning mix includes an outstanding student body, a low student-faculty ratio and a generous helping of assistance for families who can't afford to pay full freight. That policy allowed Scott Storm, a junior, to choose Swarthmore over less-pricey colleges. "Compared with other liberal arts schools, the package here was so much better," says Storm, the first in his family to attend a private college. It includes a grant that covers more than half of the total cost and work-study that brings in about $7,000. Storm and his parents split the remaining expenses. "I've saved my entire life to have enough money for this," he says.

Caltech, highest-ranked on our list of universities, boasts equally impressive academic stats, and one of the top science programs in the country. Caltech offers a remarkable three-to-one student-faculty ratio and a financial-aid policy so lavish that, on average, students graduate with less than $5,500 in debt -- chump change compared with the $19,500 national median. "I don't have to worry about money," says Andrew Kositsky, a junior whose package will allow him to graduate debt-free. "It's very reassuring."

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That's not a word ordinarily used to describe the cost of a private education, for which the total annual price (including room and board) averages $30,000. But even the most competitive colleges and universities are willing to knock significant amounts off the sticker price to attract the right students. The average grant package from private institutions comes to about $5,700, according to the College Board. Our rankings help you find the best match among 100 great choices.

Financial need

Looking for an elite liberal arts college that's off the beaten track? Visit Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Maine. This 200-plus-year-old institution, number seven on our list, offers an average aid package of $22,520 to students who need financial assistance. And the school gives good value to all: 90% of its students earn a diploma in four years -- a record that is among the best of any program in our rankings. Bowdoin also stands out for its flexible admission policy: SATs have been optional there for 30 years.

Bowdoin reflects a trend among highly selective schools to level the economic playing field. "Top-tier institutions don't have to worry about attracting the best and brightest. They're looking at this from the standpoint of social responsibility," says Travis Reindl, an analyst of educational trends. Of the first 20 colleges and universities in our rankings, more than half devote all or most of their dollars to need-based aid.

Following the lead of Princeton, which replaced need-based loans with grants a few years ago, Ivy League and other top-tier schools try to balance the mix so that students with the skimpiest safety nets graduate debt-free. "If you're not very needy, your package might include loans and work-study," says James Bock, the financial-aid director at Swarthmore. "The needier you are, the more grants you get."

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Like many other private institutions, Swarthmore uses its own calculation, in addition to the federal government's formula, to determine who qualifies for need-based aid. "We really want to know your situation and give a fair assessment," says Bock. The result can be surprising. "People can qualify for aid with incomes of $140,000 and above."

Merit-based aid

Middle- and high-income families can take advantage of another trend in higher education: competition among lower-tier institutions to attract star applicants with merit awards. That practice, also known as tuition discounting, helps schools boost their academic standing, which in turn attracts more students.

The trick is to choose a college where your child stands out among incoming freshmen. Families not bitten by the Ivy bug might consider Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school on a scenic campus in Gambier, Ohio. Number 23 on our list, Kenyon has strong programs in both English and drama. What's more, it bestows merit packages on almost half of its students, in awards that average $12,072.

Trinity University (number 21), in San Antonio, Tex., also spreads the wealth between merit and need-based awards. Its total sticker price of $30,797 per year is one of the lowest of all the universities in our rankings.

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A no-brainer

When Andrew Kositsky applied to colleges several years ago, complicated circumstances prevented him from receiving much family support or qualifying for need-based aid. Rather than abandon his dream of attending an Ivy League institution, Kositsky, of Lummi Island, Wash., considered borrowing $100,000 to foot the bill. "I thought it would be worth it because I'd only go to college once. I wanted the decision to be made irrespective of money."

Then he talked to Caltech, where a flexible approach to financial aid meant that he could attend a top program without mortgaging his future. "Not only was Caltech understanding in the first place, but it was also willing to listen in case the dynamic changed," says Kositsky. His package, which includes federal and institutional aid, covers about three-fourths of the cost. Kositsky and his family pay the rest.

For a math whiz seeking an atmosphere of "math-science nerdiness," this tiny institution proved to be a perfect fit. An oasis of blooming rosebeds and Moorish architecture, Caltech claims five Nobel laureates among its faculty, as well as Mike Brown, whose discovery of the dwarf planet Eris helped send Pluto's stock plummeting last year.

Like Kositsky, whose studies include math, geophysics and Chinese, "Caltech students want to understand everything," says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. Last year, several Techers harvested olives from the campus olive trees, mashed them, pressed them through window screens and produced the school's first batch of olive oil. Chameau expects next year's pressing, an expanded enterprise, to be profitable enough to finance two to three full scholarships.

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When Kositsky graduates next year, he plans to share his enthusiasm for math by teaching, a profession he couldn't have pursued had he been saddled with six-figure debt. This brainy kid now recognizes a no-brainer: "Looking back, I'm glad I made the choice not to take out those loans."

Building confidence

Across the country, Scott Storm takes a bite of his apple in the Swarthmore dining hall as he describes a parallel passion: helping middle schoolers of all backgrounds connect to literature. "As part of a thesis project, we will have a book club. The kids will read a book and talk about how they feel about it. It's easier to talk across cultures by using literature as a springboard."

Storm, who grew up on a farm in Stroudsburg, Pa., chose Swarthmore for its change-the-world energy as well as its scholarship. "I wanted a place that was going to be very aware of social and civic responsibilities," says Storm. That idealism sends Swatties to New Orleans to gut houses and to China to work in AIDS clinics. Says Patricia James, of Swarthmore's Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, "We trip over students wanting to get involved."

Swarthmore's activism also extends to its financial-aid policy. "In my mind, it's the responsibility of institutions of higher learning to use money to help those who can't afford to go to college," says president Alfred Bloom. Except for a few scholarships that also consider merit, the school awards only need-based aid.

Once on campus, Swatties of every circumstance enjoy the school's stone-clad buildings and cloistered gardens, as well as its intimate classes, free concerts, intramural snowball fights and state-of-the-art coffee bar. But the small train station at the foot of the campus reminds students that they will eventually go forth. Says Bloom, "Swarthmore gives students the intellectual skills and confidence to become the leaders of a better world."