How We Rank the Schools

These criteria help us determine which universities make it onto our list.

Kiplinger’s bases its rankings on a combination of academics and affordability. We start with data from more than 500 public four-year colleges and universities, 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 entering in 2002.

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).

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To assess costs, we look at 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 before 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 $22,000 a year for tuition and fees.

Use our tool to sort all 100 schools.