At the University of Virginia, the sense of history is as strong as the scent of boxwood. Students live and study in buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. They tote their backpacks past fat white columns that line the walkways he created, duck into the gardens he envisioned and catch glimpses of the mountains he delighted in.
Some speak English as a second language and others with a Vuh-ginia drawl, but they all soon learn the vocabulary of this Academical Village. It's "The Grounds," not the campus; "The Lawn," not the quad; "first year," not freshman; and always, "Mr. Jefferson."
Students talented enough to be admitted to Mr. Jefferson's village -- and to the other public institutions in Kiplinger's 2008-09 rankings of the best values in public colleges and universities -- are also smart enough to recognize the bargain they're getting.
Of our 100 top schools, led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, fewer than two dozen cost more than $20,000 a year for in-state students; the University of Florida, ranked number two, keeps total in-state costs below $12,000. In contrast, private colleges have lately averaged about $33,000 a year, and some have reached a heart-stopping $50,000.
But the deals on our list aren't restricted to in-state students. At Binghamton University (SUNY), which takes the top spot in value for out-of-state students, non-New Yorkers pay $22,260, only about one-third more than in-state students, to enjoy the can-do culture of this young research institution. UNC-Chapel Hill charges $30,629 a year to out-of-state Tar Heels. That's not chump change, but it's cheap compared with the $50,000-plus sticker price at Duke University, a top-tier private school (and UNC competitor) in nearby Durham.
These schools have established a consistently firm footing at the top of our rankings. But you should also admire the up-and-comers, such as the University of Maryland-College Park, which catapulted to number nine from number 28 last year, thanks to a lower student-faculty ratio and a big jump in graduation rates. West Chester University of Pennsylvania wins the "Most Improved" award: It leaped a whopping 40 slots, from 93 to 53, after boosting graduation rates and offering more need-based aid. George Mason University, in Virginia, climbed from 77 to 46 as a result of improving its test scores and moving more graduates across the stage in four and six years.
Forecast: higher costs
Will the economic turmoil of 2008 affect the ability of these colleges to deliver great value to next year's class? For institutions such as UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, which have huge endowments and juggernaut fund-raising efforts, probably not; they have the resources to keep operations running relatively smoothly. Leonard Sandridge, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at the University of Virginia, says that despite cuts in state funding and negative endowment returns for the most recent quarter, "If we've managed as well as we intend to, the customer will not experience a cutback."