The seemingly unstoppable rise in the cost of higher education slowed last year, but make no mistake: It still costs a boatload of money to send a child to college. Just how big a boat you’ll need depends on how you navigate the college search. Your cost depends on the type of school your child attends, your eligibility for financial aid, the kind of financial aid the school offers and the school’s sticker price—that is, what you’ll pay if you don’t get any aid at all.
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With so many variables, it’s crucial to start by looking at the universe of colleges, and not limit yourself to just private or just public schools. We make it easy for you. This year, for the first time, Kiplinger’s presents a combined ranking of colleges as well as our separate rankings of best values in private universities and liberal-arts colleges and public schools.
All the schools in our rankings meet our definition of value—a quality education at an affordable price. For quality, we measure admission rate, test scores of incoming freshmen and student-to-faculty ratio (see How We Rank the Schools). On the financial side, we base our public-school rankings on in-state costs, as always, but for the combined list, we use costs for out-of-state students, the better to represent the choice students face when comparing private schools and out-of-state public schools. Each list factors in the schools’ generosity in offering financial aid.
Another important change from previous years: Our rankings now measure only four-year graduation rates. That change penalizes schools with a high percentage of students that graduate in five or six years, but it’s based on simple math: The faster your child graduates, the less money you’ll spend on his or her education.
Because private schools typically offer more-generous financial aid and have a better graduation rate than public colleges, they dominate the top spots on our combined list. And all but a smattering of schools meet full need, meaning you won’t be scrambling to fill a gap between your expected family contribution and the amount of financial aid you receive (although loans may be part of the deal).
The Envelope, Please
The number-one value on our combined list: Princeton University. The generous financial aid package offered by this Ivy League institution helps put it in the top spot, as do its tough admission standards (only 7% of applicants get in) and its six-to-one student-to-faculty ratio. Princeton also leads our list of private universities, as it has twice before.
For liberal arts colleges, ranked separately from private universities to account for their different missions, Swarthmore returns to the head of the class, making it a five-time winner. The small school, outside Philadelphia, has a low student-faculty ratio, high test scores among incoming freshmen and an average need-based aid award that brings the cost for students who qualify to about one-third of the sticker price.
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tops the public-school rankings for the 14th straight time and is also number one for best out-of-state value; it’s number 22 on our combined list. Carolina’s top-notch academics along with strong financial aid—the average net price for in-state students after need-based aid is a bargain at $6,332—contribute to its success.
Lately, however, Carolina’s reputation has been tainted by the revelation that over 18 years, hundreds of student athletes received inflated grades or credit for nonexistent courses. Many athletes were “steered” to bogus classes by academic counselors. “This scandal is devastating to us,” says chancellor Carol Folt. So how can the school remain atop our list? “Our rankings live and die by the numbers,” explains Kiplinger’s editor Janet Bodnar. “And the scandal didn't affect the overall academic quality and value that we measure.”
Factor in Financial Aid
In 2014–15, the average sticker price for an in-state, four-year public institution, including tuition, fees, and room and board, rose 3%, to $18,943 a year, according to the College Board. The average published price for a four-year private nonprofit college or university rose 3.6%, to $42,419 a year.
The majority of families, though, don’t pay those amounts, and the aid they receive can vary significantly. At Princeton, for example, 40% of this year’s freshman class, or 520 students, will pay the full sticker price: $59,165. Among the remaining 60%, 460 students will pay a net price of between zero and $15,000, and 320 will pay between $15,000 and $54,000, says Robin Moscato, director of financial aid.
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In 2001, Princeton became the first university to introduce a no-loan policy, which means its financial aid package consists entirely of grants. About one-fourth of students still borrow, but their average debt at graduation is about $5,600, the lowest on all our lists.
All of the schools at the top of our rankings provide strong financial aid packages, often involving no-loan or low-loan deals. For students who qualify, such packages can make an elite private institution affordable, even compared with a public school—which is why it’s important to look beyond the sticker price. Alyssa Johncola, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and the daughter of two Philadelphia police officers, says she’s paying less to attend the Ivy League school than she would have paid to attend Penn State, Pennsylvania’s largest public university. “I didn’t even know about Penn until my high school adviser told me to apply,” she says.
Another way to trim the tab is to make sure your child graduates in four years. All of the schools at the top of our combined list have four-year graduation rates that are well above the average of 33% for public schools and 53% for private schools. At Haverford College, number eight on our combined list and number four on our liberal arts list, 91% of students get their undergraduate degree in four years. Pomona College, number nine on our combined list, is located on a picture-postcard campus facing California’s San Gabriel Mountains, but students don’t hang around to admire the view: 93% earn their degree in four years.
As for public institutions, here, too, our top-ranked schools do a fine job of propelling students into the workplace. The University of Virginia, which ranks second for in-state and out-of-state public schools, has an 86% four-year grad rate, the highest on the list. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ushers 81% of undergraduates out the door in four years.
More Ways to Find Value
Some of the best values for your family may be out-of-state public colleges and universities, particularly if your own state’s schools aren’t a good fit for your child and you don’t expect much financial aid. UNC–Chapel Hill’s sticker price for out-of-state students is $45,494, a bargain compared with the $61,878 sticker price of nearby Duke University, a top private school (number 10 on our combined list).
If you do expect financial aid, the value offered by our top-ranked public schools for out-of-state students gets even better: The average cost at UNC–Chapel Hill for those students after need-based aid is $31,414. The University of Virginia’s average cost for out-of-state students who qualify for need-based aid is $35,071, compared with a sticker price of $53,706. The State University of New York at Geneseo, number three among public colleges for out-of-state value, charges an average of $24,349 for out-of-state students who receive need-based aid—but even without financial aid, SUNY Geneseo is an out-of-state bargain, at $29,942.
Suppose you don’t qualify for need-based aid but you aren’t managing a successful hedge fund, either. If your child is a high achiever, he or she may still qualify for merit aid. Although none of the Ivies offer merit-based aid, several institutions at the top of our private-school rankings do. Washington and Lee University, number two on our liberal arts list, offers merit aid to 13% of students who don’t qualify for need-based aid, with an average scholarship of about $35,000.
Public universities also offer merit aid that lowers the cost of tuition for eligible students. The University of Virginia offers merit aid to 13% of students without need, and Truman State (number 12 for out-of-state value) offers aid to an impressive 60%.