The economy may be recovering, but the effects of the recession continue to buffet the nation’s public colleges and universities. State governments, coping with shrunken tax revenues and an overwhelming demand for services, have cut funding for higher education. Universities that once relied on the income from fat endowments have yet to recoup multimillion-dollar losses to their portfolios. Families continue to apply for financial aid in record numbers. Meanwhile, enrollment at state institutions has spiked as more students go public and more people overall seek college degrees.
The schools in our top 100 best values in public colleges and universities -- led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for overall value and by Binghamton University (SUNY) for out-of-state value -- continue to deliver strong academics at reasonable prices, in many cases by offering the same or more financial aid as in previous years. But no one can say that it has been easy.
To cope with less money and more students, public institutions, including many in our rankings, have slashed operating costs and raised tuition beyond the average increase of about five percentage points over inflation in recent years. The University of California system, caught in the downdraft of a state budget meltdown, imposed a midyear tuition hike of 15%, to be followed by another 15% increase in the summer, precipitating statewide protests. (Our rankings reflect tuition and fees, including midyear increases, as of December 1, 2009.)
With neither state nor college budgets able to turn on a dime, the immediate future for public higher education looks “difficult, challenging and messy,” says Daniel Hurley, of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Your student could end up in bigger classes with more part-time instructors -- or worse yet, get shut out of a public college altogether as states limit enrollment to control costs.
In the best-case scenario, however, colleges will find more and better ways to preserve quality and eliminate fat, perhaps ultimately reducing the size or frequency of tuition increases. Some universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Maryland at College Park (number 8 in our rankings), are already doing just that. “There’s no reason we can’t conduct nonacademic functions as efficiently as possible,” says UNC chancellor Holden Thorp.
Last year, Thorp hired consultants Bain & Co. to help streamline operations, enabling the university to pare 10% in administrative expenses in anticipation of a state reduction in funding. “We insisted that the cuts be as far away from the classroom as we could get them,” says Thorp. In Maryland, the university system struck a bargain with state leaders in which school administrators pledged to cut costs in exchange for a steady flow of state funding. Result? In-state students enjoyed a tuition freeze for four consecutive years. (Read about Maryland’s fast climb to our top ten.)
Weighing quality and cost
Our definition of value begins with academics: No school is a bargain if it skimps on quality. All of the schools in our rankings perform well on measurable criteria, such as student-faculty ratios, academic competitiveness and on-time graduation rates. (For details on how we set the standards, see How We Rank the Schools.)
The schools on our list also deliver an affordable education, our other measure of value, by keeping the sticker price low, offering plenty of financial aid or both. Of the colleges in our rankings, 39 charge about the same or less than the average annual in-state sticker price ($15,213) for four-year public institutions, and many come in well below that amount. Those prices look especially attractive compared with the average cost of a private-school education, which this year hit an average total of $35,636, according to the College Board.
You can also find bargains in our rankings for out-of-state students, who typically pay at least twice the price to attend someone else’s home-state school. For example, Binghamton charges $26,075 a year to students who are not New York residents -- only one-third more than the in-state price. The school’s large number of international students and its dual-degree programs with universities in Mexico, Russia and Turkey give the term out of state new meaning; but Binghamton’s strong academics and affordable price attract interest from students across the U.S. as well. Says President Lois DeFleur, “With so many applications, we’ve become more selective. We’re taking the best.”
As for financial aid, the colleges on our list have managed to dig deep and dole out sufficient money to keep students coming. At UNC-Chapel Hill, an academic superstar that competes with the Ivies, the annual in-state cost for students with financial need comes to a dirt-cheap $5,912. The University of Virginia, another public Ivy (and number 3 on our list), and the New College of Florida (number 12), a tiny public honors school, charge students with need an average of less than $5,000.
Unlike many top-tier private universities, some of the high-ranked institutions on our list also offer non-need-based aid to encourage top achievers to enroll in-state. “One of our responsibilities as a land-grant institution is to keep the best and the brightest,” says Sarah Bauder, director of the office of student financial aid at the University of Maryland. UNC-Chapel Hill, which offers need-based and merit aid to both residents and nonresidents, uses 25% of the revenue from logo-bearing T-shirts and sports memorabilia to stoke its merit-scholarship fund. Tar Heel fans keep the money rolling in, says Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid. “Luckily for us, we won a basketball championship in 2009.”
UNC -- still the one
Chapel Hill, a consistent winner of Kiplinger’s top honors, maintains its lofty spot in our tables in part for its ability to attract and keep highflying students. Three-fourths or more of its incoming freshmen scored higher than 600 on both the verbal and math portions of their SATs, and almost all -- 96.5% -- stay on after freshman year. This year, Chapel Hill fielded more than 23,000 applications and admitted about 7,400, giving it a competitive 32% admission rate. Almost 20% of the admitted students were the first in their families to attend college.
Besides boasting top students, an outstanding faculty and a historic campus, Chapel Hill enjoys one big advantage over many other public schools: strong state support for financial aid. “Our aid money from the state has grown significantly over the past few years,” says Ort. Although funding was trimmed a bit in the current academic year, she says, “we were still in an improved spot over the previous year.” That support has enabled UNC to protect its financial-aid budget and to maintain its policy of minimizing or eliminating loans from the financial-aid packages for families with need.
Still, financial-aid applications at Chapel Hill jumped 17% this year over last year’s number, which rose 13% over the previous year. Despite the demand, UNC plans to meet the need of every student who walks through its doors, says Thorp. “We’re not going to back away from our traditions in financial aid.”
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