Best Values in Public Colleges 2011

Despite shrinking budgets, these 100 schools deliver a stellar education at an affordable price.

As schools struggle with shrinking budgets and increased enrollment, look for those that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: Best Values in Private Colleges 2012

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked Kiplinger's number-one best value for public colleges and universities for a remarkable ten times running, is a prime example. Carolina's admission rate remains among the lowest on our annual list; its students are among the most competitive; and its in-state cost, at $17,000, is not much higher than the average price ($16,140) for all public universities. For students who qualify for need-based aid, the total price for this top-tier university drops to an average of $7,020.

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Carolina's performance is all the more exceptional considering the current climate for public higher education. Over the past few years, states have cut funding for colleges and universities by tens of millions of dollars. Enrollment and the demand for financial aid have surged. Federal stimulus funding, which provided crucial support, will soon run out, and Medicaid continues to deplete state coffers. "Everywhere you look, there is less money," says Shirley Ort, director of the office of scholarships and student aid at Chapel Hill. Unlike past shortfalls, this one will likely affect higher education in "significant and probably permanent ways," says Charles Lenth, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Measuring value

In our annual assessment of best value, we identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best BA for the buck. We start with academic quality, including the school's student-faculty ratio, its admission rate and its four-year graduation rate. We then factor in affordability, such as the total cost of attendance with or without financial aid. (For more, see How We Rank the Schools and FAQs About Our Public College Rankings.)

Binghamton University (SUNY), ranked sixth overall, takes the number-one spot for out-of-state value for the third time in a row. It's an honor the school's president, C. Peter Magrath, might prefer to forgo. He complains that tuition is too low for a university whose admission rate, at 33%, rivals top schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill. Out-of-state students pay a total of $27,535 to attend Binghamton, less than the national average of $28,130. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal to transfer control over tuition -- and increases -- to the SUNY schools but will probably revisit the issue, says Magrath. Memo to non-New Yorkers: Grab this deal now.

Perennial stars in our rankings include the University of Florida (number two) and the New College of Florida (number 11), both of which offer strong academics at a sticker price below $15,000. New College, a tiny honors school with a spectacular view of Sarasota Bay, drops the price to less than half that amount for in-staters who qualify for need-based aid. For a rock-bottom $4,545, students get the view, the company of other highly competitive students and a 10-1 student-faculty ratio. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (number 48) earns top honors in the student-faculty category, with a ratio of 8-1.

Two Virginia schools deserve special Kiplinger kudos for consistently maintaining their position among our top five since our first rankings, in 1998. The University of Virginia (number three) and the College of William and Mary (number four) each draw high-scoring incoming freshmen and post the highest four-year graduation rates on our list, delivering degrees to more than 80% of their students in four years and more than 90% in six. UVA also brings its cost after aid to students with need to less than $6,000.

Virtually all of the schools we list raised their price in 2010-11, but the University of Maryland, which maintained a tuition freeze for four straight years, kept this year's total cost increase to less than $600. The first-class flagship continues its march up our rankings, moving from number eight last year to number five in 2010-11. As for the lowest sticker price, that distinction belongs to the University of North Carolina at Asheville (number 58). In-state students pay only $12,762. Appalachian State (number 35), in Boone, N.C., runs just a few dollars more, at $12,775.

Faced with a state budget crisis of epic proportions, University of California schools were forced to bump up costs by as much as $3,500 a year for in-state students and more than $4,000 for out-of-state students, pushing several UC schools past the $50,000 mark. Despite the price hikes, UC schools stand out for their relatively low average debt and impressively high six-year graduation rates. Out-of-staters who can afford to pay UC's private-school prices will find opportunity in California's crisis: UC schools have opened the doors wide to nonresidents, the better to collect that out-of-state tuition premium (see our Paying for College special report for tips on covering the tuition bill).

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Skimming the cream

Be it perspicacity or plain luck, Carolina finished a major capital campaign at the end of 2007, just before the recession. Still, the current austerity has meant raising tuition by almost $1,000 this year and pruning operating costs to the tune of $36 million annually, mostly by streamlining administrative expenses. "Efficiency enhances our ability to meet our academic goals," says Chancellor Holden Thorp. The university recently hired 120 junior faculty members, expanded its honors program and introduced an enrichment program for top freshmen. "Decisions were made with an eye to providing students not just with a low-cost education but also with a great one," says Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions.

Carolina is willing to pony up to ensure affordability. "One of the things that have helped us remain a good value is the commitment the university has to funding need-based aid," says UNC's Ort. Carolina continues to meet the full need of students who qualify despite a 35% increase over the past two years in the number of students who qualify for financial aid. Financial aid offsets the tuition increase for students with need (our interactive tool will help you learn how to interpret a college-aid letter).

Such policies allow UNC to attract the best students that North Carolina (and the country) has to offer -- and Thorp intends to keep it that way. He aims to prevent in-state students from straying to elite competitors, such as Harvard or UVA, and has been known to call prospective students to make his case. "It's great to say to a parent, 'Your daughter is a great student. Please put her on the phone.'"

Jerry Bowens, a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., found his way to Chapel Hill not by a phone call but through the Carolina College Advising Corps, which helps North Carolina high school students get through the college admissions process. At Bowens's high school, "a lot of people felt lost and didn't go to college," he says. With the adviser's help, Bowens not only was admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill but also scored a full ride through the Carolina Covenant, which provides no-loan financial aid to students in the program. Says Bowens, who participates in a student hip-hop group, plays a main role in General College (the campus soap opera) and plans to study abroad, "Being here, finding a niche, things that cater to my interests -- it's a perfect fit for me."

How we rank the schools

Kiplinger's bases its rankings on a combination of academics and affordability. We start with data from more than 500 public four-year schools, provided by Peterson's/Nelnet, then add our own reporting.

We narrow the list to about 120 schools based on measures of academic quality -- including SAT or ACT scores, admission and retention rates, student-faculty ratios, and four- and six-year graduation rates, which most schools reported for the class that entered in 2003.

We then rank each school based on cost and financial aid. In our scoring system, academic quality carries more weight than costs (almost two-thirds of the total). To assess costs, we look at the total expenses for in-state students (tuition, mandatory fees, room and board, and books); the average cost for a student with need after subtracting grants (but not loans); the average cost for a student without need after subtracting non-need-based grants; the average percentage of need met by aid; and the average debt per student at graduation. (In the table, aid is need-based assistance.)

To determine out-of-state rankings, we run the academic-quality and expense numbers again, this time using total costs for out-of-state residents and average costs after aid.

Our rankings focus on traditional four-year schools with broad-based curricula. As a result, schools that offer great value but focus on special or narrow academic programs, such as the military service academies, are excluded. Cornell University, best known as a member of the Ivy League, is another exception. Four of Cornell's colleges are part of the privately endowed university, which we consider a private institution. But three of Cornell's undergraduate colleges are land-grant state schools that cost much less -- about $23,500 a year for tuition and fees.

Jane Bennett Clark
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
The late Jane Bennett Clark, who passed away in March 2017, covered all facets of retirement and wrote a bimonthly column that took a fresh, sometimes provocative look at ways to approach life after a career. She also oversaw the annual Kiplinger rankings for best values in public and private colleges and universities and spearheaded the annual "Best Cities" feature. Clark graduated from Northwestern University.