50 Best Values in Public Colleges

We've updated our rankings with tuition costs for the 2006-07 school year. Find out if your state school is a contender in our top 50 schools that offer academic excellence at an affordable price.

The new figures are in, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill once again leads Kiplinger's list of the best values in public colleges. Even though costs at some of the nation's top schools increased by more than 8% for the 2006-07 school year, you can still get an excellent education for less than $10,000 per year. And you have many great colleges from which to choose.

In our exclusive survey, we identified the 50 public colleges that combine high-quality academics and affordable costs. We first rated the schools based on several measures of academic criteria, such as percentage of 2005-06 freshmen scoring 600 or higher on the verbal and math components of the SAT or scoring 24 or higher on the ACT, admission rates, freshman retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four- and six-year graduation rates.

Then we ranked each school based on updated costs and financial aid for this year -- not just looking at the price of tuition, fees, room and board and books, but also at how much the average student actually ends up paying after need-based and non-need-based grants (not including loans), how much debt the average student accumulates by graduation, and the percentage of need meet by financial aid. We ran these numbers using costs for in-state students and for out-of-state students.

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Since academic quality is our first priority, those categories accounted for almost two-thirds of the total score. (Learn more about how we scored the schools.)

The result: a list of 50 public colleges that compete with top private schools, but without the giant price tag.

A cut above

To maintain their position at the top of our list, most of the schools had to increase their aid packages and boost their academic standards. Schools whose SAT scores, graduation rates and other academic criteria merely remained the same tended to fall in our rankings.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, continues to improve its already stellar academics while focusing on low costs and generous financial aid. Tuition and fees for in-state students is only about $5,000 in 2006-07; or $13,500 after adding in room and board and books. But most students don't pay nearly that much. The school increased its average need-based aid package to more than $7,000, bringing the cost down to about $6,400 after subtracting need-based aid. And the school also gives away a lot of money that isn't based on need, with an average non-need-based grant of about $5,300.

Meanwhile, UNC-Chapel Hill continued to boost its already high academic standards, with 75% of the freshman class scoring higher than 600 on the verbal component of the SAT, and 82% scoring higher than 600 in math -- several points better than last year. The school's four-year graduation rate increased -- with 70% graduating after four years, more than double the graduation rate of some other schools in our top 50, and nearly 84% graduating within six years.

More top choices

The University of Florida again was the runner up, with incredibly low costs and only a moderate price increase. Florida residents pay just $3,200 in tuition and fees for the 2006-07 school year; with costs totaling just over $10,000 after adding in room and board and books. But the price drops to about $6,400 after subtracting the average need-based aid package.

The University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary, also in Virginia, came in third and fourth in our survey and have some of the best academics on the list. Even though the total cost of tuition, fees, room and board and books was about $16,000 for both schools, they also increased their aid packages -- with need-based aid averaging more than $10,000, bringing the cost after aid down below $6,000 for the year.

Both Virginia schools -- as well as the UNC-Chapel Hill -- are among a growing number of public and private colleges that now meet full financial need without any loans at all for students whose families earn less than about $40,000.

If you happen to live in Virginia, New York, California, Georgia or Florida, you're in luck -- those states each have two colleges in the top 12. And for those of you on the West Coast, the University of California San Diego, University of California Los Angeles and the University of Washington also place in the top 12 for in-state students.

Two of the big movers: Georgia Tech jumped from 30 to 12 in this year's survey in part because of the school#8217;s robust academic standards -- the school has some of the highest SAT scores in the survey, and its four- and six-year graduation rates improved by several points -- and its in-state costs after need-based aid actually dropped since last year's survey. North Carolina State University, which rose from 28 to 18, boosted its graduation rates significantly and the average debt at graduation fell by nearly $3,000 -- another good byproduct of the state's focus on affordable education.

Meanwhile, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's cuts in need-based and non-need-based financial aid were a key reason why the school dropped from 8 to 29 in this year's survey.

Out-of-state bargains

If your state's college didn't make our list, you still have many good alternatives. Even though some schools charge more than $30,000 for out-of-state students, several other colleges offer much better deals.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also tops the list as the best deal for out-of-state students, followed closely by the State University of New York at Binghamton and the State University of New York at Geneseo. Both schools boast high academic standards and cost about $21,000 for out-of-state students (with about $10,000 of that for tuition). But the out-of-state cost falls to about $16,000 for Binghamton and $18,000 for Geneseo after need-based aid.

Most of the colleges in Kiplinger's top 50 are their states' flagship schools -- generally with more than 10,000 students. The University of Florida is one of the largest, with nearly 35,000 students. But a handful of the schools in our top 20 provide a more intimate setting. The College of William and Mary, SUNY Geneseo, the College of New Jersey and the University of Mary Washington (also in Virginia) all have fewer than 6,000 students. And the New College of Florida, which is 6th on our list, wins the prize for the smallest, with just 761.

Use our search tool to find the best schools using the criteria that is most important to you. You can also view our top 100 ranking from February this year. And stay tuned for our updated list of the 100 most affordable colleges and universities in Kiplinger's Personal Finance early next year.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.