Some surprising up-and-comers challenge familiar names. By Jane Bennett Clark, Senior Editor December 1, 2008 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. Advertisement 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." Advertisement But schools with fewer resources, especially in states with hard-hit economies, will have to scramble. Lois DeFleur, president of Binghamton University, says that her institution has already dealt with one budget cut and expects another as a result of the meltdown on Wall Street. "Close to 25 percent of state revenues come from the financial sector," says DeFleur. To withstand such hits, the university has developed its own revenue-producing enterprises and pared nonacademic expenses. The latest strategy: Clean campus buildings at night, when the job can be done faster. Parents will likely have to pony up more, too, but that's nothing new. The average annual growth in total costs at public institutions has outpaced inflation by several percentage points over the past several decades, according to the College Board. Tuition has become a bigger part of the revenue pie as state appropriations have lagged. Don't expect prices to go down or state funding to go up soon, says Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Office. "When times get tough, the path of least resistance is to restrain or even reduce higher-education spending." Filling the gap As our rankings demonstrate, higher prices overall don't necessarily mean you'll pay more for your student's education. Financial-aid awards can knock thousands of dollars off the price tag, especially if your family qualifies for need-based aid. Of the top ten schools in our rankings, UNC-Chapel Hill, UVA and New College of Florida bestow enough need-based grant money to bring the average cost of in-state attendance to under $5,000 (less than the average price of a year at preschool). If you earn too much to get in on those packages, click your heels and wish yourself to Georgia or Florida. At the University of Florida, number two in our rankings, and the University of Georgia, number four, in-state students who meet the academic criteria get to attend tuition-free, and many students qualify. Both states established the programs to keep top students within state borders. Advertisement Such merit scholarship programs, as well as the recent trend among elite private colleges and universities to extend need-based aid to higher-income families, have put pressure on other public universities to offer more and better aid to middle-class students. UNC-Chapel Hill is no exception. Holden Thorp, the new chancellor, says the university plans to be "more competitive on the merit-aid side," perhaps by adopting a program similar to Florida's or Georgia's, using private funds. The university currently meets the full financial need of all its students and generally keeps loans to one-third of the financial-aid package for higher-income families. It has no plans, however, to break faith with the Carolina Covenant, the financial-aid program that replaces loans with grants for families whose incomes fall at or below 200% of the federal poverty level -- about $40,000 for a family of four. UNC-Chapel Hill was the first major public institution to eliminate debt for low-income students, an undertaking that has since been adopted by more than 80 colleges and universities. The school also established the Carolina College Advisory Corps, a program that identifies promising, low-income high school students around the state and encourages them to apply to colleges, including this flagship institution. Those who are admitted as Covenant scholars receive financial aid as well as ongoing academic support. The first class of Covenant scholars graduated in May, and "we're thrilled with how things have gone," says Thorp. Advertisement UNC students of every background have equal reason to be thrilled at the opportunity to share classrooms with other high-achieving students and learn from a nationally acclaimed faculty. The historic campus is undergoing a major refurbishing that includes the FedEx Global Education Center, a hub for international studies, as well as a state-of-the-art physical-science complex. Says Thorp, "The experience here is comparable to one you'd get at a major private research university, and we intend to keep it that way." Loan-free aid John Casteen, longtime president of the University of Virginia, fiddles with a paper clip in his spacious office in Madison Hall as he recalls what it was like to be a first-year student at the University of Virginia. "My father was a shipyard worker in Portsmouth. My high school didn't send many students to college. I really struggled the first year. "I was dealing with a different set of academic demands and intense competition in an environment in which helping people was not the model. I had a crisis of confidence over the summer, and I realized I had to do something." The next year, he dropped every activity except studying and working. "I taught myself how to be a good student," he says. Several decades later, Kyle Mihalcoe of Sandston, Va., recalls his own crisis of confidence at the prospect of applying to UVA. "I come from a high school where the students are from a lower socioeconomic level. It's very diverse. We don't necessarily think of UVA as possible for us," says Mihalcoe. "I thought I wouldn't fit in here." AccessUVA, a program similar to the Carolina Covenant, along with the College Guide program developed by UVA, gave Mihalcoe a chance to find out otherwise. College Guide works with high schools that have a large number of low-income students to identify college candidates, brings in UVA graduates to help them apply and bird-dogs their applications. Access-UVA provides financial assistance once they've gained admission; students whose families are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level receive loan-free financial aid. The university also limits need-based loans for higher-income students to 25% of the total in-state cost of a UVA education. "Throughout the 1990s, we struggled with a financial-aid budget that rarely got past 90% of what students needed," says Casteen. "The effect was that our students, who had never used loans very much, began to build up debt." Concerned that undergraduates who borrowed heavily would be less likely to go to graduate school and more likely to settle for the first job they could get, the university came up with the 25% formula and committed to meeting the full need of every student. UVA can afford that largess, owing to a decision to pump up fund-raising operations in 1991, when drastic budget cuts threatened its goal to become a major research institution. It now has a $5-billion endowment, which makes it one of the 25 wealthiest universities in the country. "Thirty years ago, the endowment was the icing on the cake," says COO Sandridge. "Today, it's very much the cake." Patrick Tyler, a fourth-year student from New Orleans, happily pays out-of-state tuition to attend the University of Virginia. "In terms of the quality of the education you get and the connections you make, UVA is comparable to any institution in the country," says Tyler. "It's a flourishing intellectual environment. People here want to do great things for the world, but they're also very social." Tyler lives in one of the original residence rooms on The Lawn, an honor accorded to outstanding fourth-year students. He loves the history his room represents, including the signature carved in the wall by Byrd Warwick, a student who lived in the same quarters more than a century ago. He also loves being in the middle of things. "The Lawn is very much a part of student life," says Tyler. "It's not a roped-off museum." Mihalcoe decided to become part of that tradition in the spring of 2005, when he found out he had been awarded a loan-free package through AccessUVA. Now a fourth-year student, he spreads the word about the university's part in the bargain. "I love the fact that UVA believes its students' value to the community is worth so much more than the help it gives you to come here." Unlike UVA's president, Mihalcoe had support from the start, beginning with a summer mentoring program that helped him feel part of this Academical Village before he arrived in the fall. "From the outside looking in, you might see UVA as standoffish, but once you're a student here, it's one of the most welcoming communities I've ever seen," says Mihalcoe. "From the first day I stepped on The Grounds as a UVA student, I fell in love. It instantly clicked. I knew this was the right place for me." How We Ranked the Public Colleges Candice Jones, Louis Jones and Stacy Rapacon helped compile the data for this special report.