Students pause in respectful silence as the sun melts into the horizon, transforming Sarasota Bay into a shimmering mass of pink and periwinkle-blue ribbons. The spectacle is one of the best perks at New College of Florida, a tiny public institution that abuts the bay. No lecture, however erudite, can beat nature's majesty.
Over the past five years, conditions haven't always been so rosy. Cuts in state funding, combined with rising costs for construction, utilities and employee benefits, have forced up tuition and fees at four-year public institutions by 35% since 2001, reports the College Board. Meanwhile, record-setting enrollments and greater demands on Medicaid and other state-funded services suggest that new storms may be brewing.
But the immediate future looks bright, says the College Board's Sandy Baum. With a stronger economy and rebounding state appropriations, "the real crunch in public-college costs that existed for a couple of years has let up," says Baum. "Increases in tuition and fees are lower."
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Indeed, this year's increase of 6.3% amounts to just $344, which bumps the average annual tab for tuition and fees at a four-year public school to $5,836, and the yearly total, including room and board, to $12,796. That's less than half the cost of a private-school education, which averages $30,367 a year.
In Kiplinger's exclusive rankings, we give you the top 100 public schools that, in our judgment, combine outstanding value with a first-class education. SEE THE 100 BEST VALUES IN PUBLIC COLLEGES. For instance, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, number one in our rankings for the sixth straight time, Tar Heel students pay $13,584 or less and get small classes, a top-notch faculty and a supportive environment that enables 84% of students to earn a degree within six years. That winning formula attracts top students from both in and out of state. Says chancellor James Moeser, "Our overall excellence is driving it -- and a national basketball championship in 2005 didn't hurt."
When you add in financial aid and tax benefits, a public-school education looks even better. An in-state student with average aid pays only $2,799 a year in tuition and fees -- about the price of a 50-inch plasma TV. And the total annual bill is just $10,000.
For many in-state students, the concept of paying any tuition at all is as quaint as, say, using a land-line telephone. Almost half the states offer some type of merit aid to high-achieving residents. "They want to improve the quality of their institutions and keep those students in state," says Baum. Florida's Bright Futures program pays up to 100% of tuition for Florida residents who meet the academic criteria. At the University of Georgia, virtually all in-state students receive a merit-based HOPE scholarship, which covers tuition and fees.
Erin Dunn of Tavernier, Fla., had her heart set on studying out of state, but her parents ruled otherwise. "They wouldn't let me pass up the Bright Futures scholarship," says Dunn. Now thriving as a senior at the University of Florida, "I can't even tell you how much tuition is," Dunn says.
Some educators question the policy of putting merit scholarships on par with (or ahead of) need-based assistance. At UNC-Chapel Hill, which meets 100% of costs for freshmen whose families qualify, "we have never shifted funds from need- to merit-based scholarships," says Moeser. That said, "we're aggressively building our arsenal of merit-based scholarships to be more competitive."
Dunn didn't sacrifice quality in attending UF. Her soon-to-be alma mater ranks second on our 2007 honor roll of public colleges, thanks to the caliber of the student body as well as a show-stopping yearly tuition -- $3,206 -- that represents one of the lowest sticker prices in the nation. Most in-state students qualify for the Bright Futures award.
As for other states, residents of Mr. Jefferson's commonwealth can consider themselves twice blessed. Both the College of William and Mary (number three on our list) and the University of Virginia (number four) draw top students who return in large numbers after freshman year and post impressive four- and six-year graduation rates. Both schools offer generous aid to in-state applicants with need.
Also check out Binghamton University (SUNY) and SUNY Geneseo. Both New York State schools top our rankings for offering high-quality education to out-of-state residents at a relatively low total cost -- about $21,000 annually. The average financial-aid package cuts that amount by several thousand dollars.
Compared with last year's rankings, some institutions leapfrogged into the top 20 and others dropped to lower positions. For instance, Georgia Institute of Technology moved up 17 places, to number 13, by improving retention and graduation rates and beefing up financial aid. The University of Illinois fell 22 places by raising tuition and cutting need-based aid in half. The University of Wisconsin-Madison also slashed need-based aid and dropped from number 15 to number 25.
Regardless of their rank, the institutions on our list represent an amazing diversity of size, style and opportunity -- even within a single state. To see just how enticing the choices can be, compare the New College of Florida (number six) and the University of Florida (number two). See the 100 best values in public colleges.