When it comes to finding the right college for your child and the best value for your family, figuring out which schools deserve a closer look can be half the battle. With so many variables to consider, it's crucial to start your search with a healthy array of options, including both public and private schools. And once you begin your search, you may be surprised to see how varied your choices are and how many great values you'll find.
See Also: 10 Best College Values, 2016
To make the process easier, start with Kiplinger's annual list of the 300 best values in colleges and universities, all of which meet our standards for their blend of strong academics and affordability. As with last year’s list, we present a combined ranking of colleges as well as separate rankings of the best values in private universities, private liberal arts colleges and public colleges. As always, the list of schools runs coast to coast, with stops just about everywhere in between. And this year, for the first time, we present future earnings data alongside each school in our rankings to give you a better idea of what attending a particular school may mean for your child's post-graduation earnings.
Our rankings are based on a mix of quality and cost measures (see How We Rank the Best College Values). The quality measures, including admission rates and test scores of incoming students, apply to all schools. On the financial side, we use in-state costs for the public school list but costs for out-of-state students on the combined list—because the best value for your family may be an out-of-state public college, particularly if the schools in your home state aren’t a good fit for your student.
Reducing the Sticker Price
For 2015–16, the average sticker price for an in-state, four-year public institution, including tuition, fees, and room and board, rose 3.3%, to $19,548 a year, according to the College Board. The average published cost of attendance at private colleges and for out-of-state students at public colleges rose 3.5%, to $43,921 and $34,031 per year, respectively.
If you run your finger down the total-cost column of our rankings, you will notice that many of the schools in the upper echelons of our list post annual sticker prices well above the national averages. On the surface, naming schools costing in the neighborhood of $60,000 a year as best values seems to defy logic. But there's a simple explanation: For most families, sticker price does not equal net price. All of the schools in our rankings offer generous need-based financial aid—often reducing the average price to about half of the published sticker price. Many also offer non-need-based aid (sometimes called merit aid), further reducing costs for students with top marks and other accomplishments.
Private liberal arts colleges and private universities dominate the top spots on our combined list. In spite of their higher price tags, private schools typically pile up points in our rankings for their generous financial aid packages and better performance on quality measures, such as test scores of incoming freshmen and four-year graduation rates.
But not all of the colleges on our list are woven from the same ivy. For example, Grinnell College (number 18 on our combined list and number nine among liberal arts colleges) is a pint-size school in the heart of Iowa's prairie, but it attracts a diverse student body for its activist culture and strong academics. (The school's 85% four-year graduation rate rivals that of big names such as Brown and Harvard.) Only 8% of Grinnellians hail from Iowa, less than half are from the Midwest, and about 25% from the U.S. are students of color. Flags representing each of the 47 home countries of Grinnell's international students adorn the space above the school's café in Rosenfield Center, which is the hub of student activity—even on a blustery, rainy afternoon, as we discovered on a recent visit.
The Winners' Circle
This year, Washington and Lee University moves up three places to head our combined best values list. The small school, located in tiny Lexington, Va. (population 7,300), attracts exemplary students (about 50% of incoming freshmen score 700 or higher on the critical-reading and math portions of the SAT), and an eight-to-one student-faculty ratio generally translates into small classes. A modest 2% total cost increase over last year—combined with an average need-based aid award that brings the net price for students who qualify to less than $18,000 a year—helps propel the school to the top of our list. W&L also leads our list of liberal arts colleges for the second time, after consistently landing in our top 10 since 2007.
See Also: Find the Best College for You
Among private universities, which are ranked separately from liberal arts colleges to account for their different missions, Princeton leads the pack for the fourth time. The Ivy League institution has a highly selective 7% admission rate, a slim six-to-one student-faculty ratio and the highest four-year graduation rate (90%) among our top 10 private universities. As with other schools on our lists, Princeton's annual sticker price ($58,660) doesn't appear affordable at first glance. But the school awards need-based aid to nearly 60% of students, including those from families who earn $250,000 a year or more. Princeton’s average need-based aid award cuts the school’s sticker price by more than 70%, to $15,563.