Best Values in Public Colleges, 2012

The top-100 public colleges and universities on our list deliver a quality education at an affordable price.

For public colleges and universities, the march out of the recession has become a long, slow slog. State appropriations for higher education have been gutted. The federal stimulus money that sustained colleges for several years is just about gone. Enrollment keeps climbing, the demand for financial aid remains high, and the average annual tuition increase is heading toward double digits.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: 10 Top Values in Public Colleges, 2012

Given these hard times in higher ed, the word value takes on special resonance. We've retooled our rankings to give more weight to criteria we consider crucial to academic value, including the percentage of students who return for sophomore year and the four-year graduation rate. Each category measures a college's ability to keep students engaged and on track for graduation. On the cost side, we continue to reward colleges with low sticker prices and abundant financial aid. But now, as student debt grows worrisome, we give bonus points to colleges that keep borrowing low.

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SEE OUR TOOL: Compare All Top 100 Public Colleges

Where does our new methodology take us? Back to where we started, with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This stellar school tops our rankings for best values in public colleges and universities for the 11th consecutive time -- and this year it takes top honors for out-of-state value as well. From the fat years of the late 1990s through the post-2008 recession, UNC-Chapel Hill has been a leader for academic excellence, low cost and generous financial aid -- exactly the criteria by which we define value.

Other value leaders include the University of Florida (number two on our list), the University of Virginia (number three) and the College of William & Mary (opens in new tab) (number four). The University of Florida and New College of Florida (opens in new tab) (fifth in our rankings) not only post prices that are less than half the average for private schools -- $38,589, according to the College Board -- but also beat the national average for public schools ($17,131), underlining the weight we give to affordability.

Cuts to Higher Education Funding

Carolina is no stranger to budget cuts: It has lost more than $231 million in state revenue since 2008. Several years ago, the university hired consultants Bain & Co. to help streamline operations. The resulting cuts, mostly to administrative functions, saved the university $50 million a year while keeping classroom operations intact. "I'm really proud of the work we’ve done to shelter undergraduate teaching," says chancellor Holden Thorp. "We're running out of ways to do that." This year, the college increased class size, eliminated course sections and reduced faculty. In a meeting with the UNC board of governors, Tom Ross, president of the UNC system, said, "The easy decisions are gone."

College administrators around the country are facing -- and making -- similarly tough calls, including eliminating or consolidating programs, increasing teaching loads, hiring more part-time faculty, and increasing class sizes. State revenues have rebounded over the past year, says Daniel Hurley, of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But, he says, public colleges can expect "a very long and slow climb back in terms of regaining state funding."

Truman State University, number 23 on our list, is a liberal-arts college in Kirksville, Mo., and a fixture in our rankings for its across-the-board value. "We took a look at all our operations and asked ourselves, Does this help us accomplish our mission?" says president Troy Paino. "What didn't, we cut." The ax fell on a campus recycling center that served the whole community and a crime lab that was available to law-enforcement agencies but off-limits to students. "In a time of diminished resources, focus is critically important," says Paino. "Our focus is on students and learning."

Delivering Bargains

Like Carolina and Truman State, the colleges on our list have all performed their share of fiscal legerdemain over the past 12 months. Some of them have bumped up the number of students per faculty member. Others have left a larger gap than in previous years between the financial aid they offer and the cost of attendance. Virtually all have raised costs for in-state and out-of-state students.

For all the numbers-juggling, these schools continue to deliver a great education at prices that put private schools to shame. Consider our number-one school, UNC-Chapel Hill. North Carolina's flagship institution boasts a highly competitive admission rate, a strong record for graduating students on time, an in-state cost that barely exceeds the national average and an admirable record on student borrowing: More than two-thirds of Carolina students graduate debt-free.

In terms of financial aid, "we've done really well at Carolina because of the commitment on the part of the administration to take care of students," says Shirley Ort, associate provost and director for scholarships and student aid. Carolina's total annual in-state cost after need-based aid runs a mere $6,548; it is one of only two institutions in our top 100 (the other is the University of Virginia) that meet the full need of students who qualify.

UNC also stands out for its value to out-of-state students, who now pay a sticker price of $37,454 per year -- not chump change, but far less than the $54,000-plus price tags of nearby competitors Duke and Wake Forest. In a departure from most public colleges, Carolina extends the same level of financial aid to out-of-state students that it affords in-state students. Says Ort, "Our feeling is that if we've granted them admission, we need to remove the financial barriers."

A glance through our top 100 reveals other good deals. North Georgia College and State University (number 88), for instance, runs less than $14,000 a year for in-state students and keeps average debt at graduation to $10,021. And talk about a steal: The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (number 93) charges $11,230 to in-state students and $18,190 to out-of-staters, making it the lowest-cost institution in our rankings.

Those numbers don't even factor in financial aid, which makes tuition affordable at some of the top public institutions in the country. For instance, at the University of Virginia, families who qualify for need-based aid pay an average annual in-state cost of only $5,138, dirt-cheap for this "public Ivy." And here's good news for all the parents of prospective 'Hoos: Because UVA graduates 85% of its students within four years, you likely won't be forking out for an extra year.

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.