Best Values in Public Colleges, 2013

From big flagship universities to small liberal arts colleges, our top 100 schools deliver academic quality and affordability.

Truman State University president Troy Paino sits at the head of a long table facing six students, all members of an honors society that regularly meets with him. “What’s the value of a Truman education?” he asks.

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As the winter sun descends over the red-brick campus buildings outside the window, the students extol the merits of core courses and ponder whether taxpayers should subsidize nonvocational training. One student contends that employers will value her well-rounded background; another argues that the liberal arts endanger your ability to reason by encouraging you to value all ideas equally—even the crackpot theories. The meeting ends, and the students head out into the cold to study or socialize, setting aside the bigger questions of college value for the daily rigors—and fun—of academic life.

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When it comes to Kiplinger's top 100 values in public education, we'll leave the philosophical debates to the academics. Instead, we rank our schools on more-tangible measures of academic quality—including test scores and four-year graduation rates—as well as affordability. Truman State, a small public school in Kirksville, Mo., has traditionally landed in the top third of our rankings. This year, it finishes at number 19, thanks to strong academics and an affordable price.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tops the list for the 12th time. The school has earned a first-place trophy every time Kiplinger's has ranked public colleges. SUNY Geneseo claims the number-one title for out-of-state value.

Why is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a perennial favorite? Credit its stellar academics, reasonable sticker price and generous financial aid. At 77%, Carolina’s four-year graduation rate is about 45 percentage points higher than the average rate for four-year public schools. Its 31% admission rate (the percentage of applicants who are accepted out of those who apply) makes it among the most competitive schools on our list.

Carolina's total annual cost runs less than $20,000—a bargain compared with private schools, which run an average of $39,518 a year, according to the College Board. Financial aid brings the cost to an average of $6,035 a year. And Carolina meets 100% of students’ financial need, one of only two schools in our rankings to do so (the University of Virginia, number two, is the other). "Meeting full need is a huge challenge, but it is such a high priority for us that we make whatever adjustments we have to," says UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, who will step down in June.

Although UNC has absorbed more than $230 million in state cuts since 2008, this year’s budget has held steady and even included a modest salary increase for university employees. "We're getting things back to where they were," says Thorp. "And we're happy about that."

SUNY Geneseo, a small honors college 35 miles south of Rochester, N.Y., edged out UNC for the top spot for out-of-state value, based primarily on total cost ($27,769 for out-of-staters). Its academics didn't top UNC's but were solid enough when combined with price to launch it into first place.

Other high achievers include the University of Virginia, which moved up one spot over last year. Its 97% freshman retention rate ties with several other schools, including UNC, for the best record, and UVA's 87% four-year graduation rate is the highest on our list. The University of Maryland at College Park jumped three places, to number five, thanks to an improved four-year graduation rate and a minimal increase in total cost over last year.

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The State of State Schools

Despite a slowly improving economy, the landscape for public colleges continues to look bleak. Having endured cuts in state appropriations over the past several years, colleges have bumped up class sizes and trimmed administrative staff. Meanwhile, the average sticker price—$17,860 for in-staters and $30,911 for out-of-staters, according to the College Board—climbed 4.2% and 4.1%, respectively, over last year, once again outpacing inflation and family incomes. An even bigger cause for concern: The net price (sticker price minus financial aid) for in-state students has risen for the third year in a row.

The outlook for new grads isn’t much better. Many recent graduates are swapping mortarboards for part-time or low-paying jobs, while tackling student debt. "The notion that college is a ticket to a good, middle-class life of prosperity is perceived to be less true today," says Richard Vedder, of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Still, a typical college grad can expect to make about $20,000 more per year than the typical high school graduate.

California Schools Rule

You may be scratching your head at the appearance of five California schools in our top 20. After all, tuition and fees have risen 72% in California since 2007–08. UC institutions charge the five highest total amounts for in-state students (and the six highest total amounts for out-of-staters) among our top 100 schools. For example, UC Berkeley may rank eighth for both in-state and out-of-state total value, but its costs, at $29,049 for in-state and $51,927 for out-of-state students, are second-highest on our list. Only 54th-ranked UC Santa Cruz charges more.

So why do California schools keep earning top marks in our rankings? Academics are key. Sixth-ranked UCLA ($26,888 in-state) admits just 25% of applicants, with 44% topping 700 on the math portion of the SATs and 22% beating 700 on the verbal portion. Berkeley charges more than UCLA, but its stellar academics round out its value. Berkeley admits only 22% of applicants, making it the most competitive school on our list. Over a third of these elite students score 700 or above on the verbal SATs, and 58% earn 700 or above on the math portion.

Fortunately, most students don't pay those shocking sticker prices. UC schools offset their high cost with liberal need-based financial aid. "If you meet the requirements at the University of California, we have generous aid packages," says Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the UC system. "Nearly half of our students don’t pay any tuition at all."

Last fall, California passed Proposition 30, which increases the sales tax and raises income taxes on high-income residents, preventing almost $6 billion in cuts to education, including higher ed. That’s good news if you’re considering a California public school. “We can breathe a little easier now and reinvest in academic excellence,” says Klein.

Hidden Gem

If you've never heard of Truman State, you're not alone, says President Troy Paino. "People come up here and say, 'This is the best-kept secret in higher education.' And I say, 'Well, I don't really want to keep it that way.' "

Truman draws many of its applicants from the Midwest. It has competitive students (27% of incoming freshmen score 30 or higher on the ACT) and a relatively low, 16-to-1 student-faculty ratio. Truman's hook is that it offers a private school–style liberal arts education at a public school price.

For Missouri residents, that price is just $15,720, and it falls to an average of $8,950 after tallying need. With 85% of need met, Truman is one of the more generous institutions on our list. And costs are low for nonresidents, who pay a reasonable $21,456 (or $14,686 after need). Out-of-state merit scholarships can make that nonresident tuition even more palatable. For example, an out-of-state A student scoring 29 or higher on the ACT can expect a $5,000 annual scholarship.

Students at Truman commit to studying hard. "Everyone is nerdy in their own way," says Alexis Morris, a junior who is majoring in chemistry. "It's the kind of school where on Sunday, the library doesn’t open until 1 p.m. but everyone is lined up at 12:30."

"This is the only public school I applied to," says Nathan Klein, a 21-year-old senior and physics major. Klein also submitted applications to seven private schools but leaned toward Truman after visiting the campus. A generous scholarship sealed the deal.

Truman State is still subject to the same budget woes as any other state school. Last fall, a proposed tobacco tax increase that could have earmarked more than $200 million for education failed to pass. But Paino says that Truman is accustomed to maintaining its academic priorities despite tight budgets. "We try to invest our money in what directly serves students, whether it's on the student-life side or on the academic side."

For Klein, who will graduate loan-free this spring and head to a seminary, Truman was the right choice. "I've had all the same opportunities at Truman that I'd have had at any other school," he says. "Maybe more because I’m not graduating with debt."

This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.

Former Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance