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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Rivan V. Stinson, Associate Online Editor
| July 25, 2019
No matter how eager you are to leave the nest, you can save a lot of money by going to an in-state school. According to the College Board, tuition, fees, and room and board cost 43% less for in-state students compared with out-of-state costs for the 2018-19 academic year. And more schools are boosting their aid packages to make college more affordable for in-state students.
To help you weigh your options, we present our annual list of best public college values. The institutions that earn top honors on our list range from small schools to immense flagship universities, but they all meet our definition of value: a high-quality education at an affordable price. We start by looking for schools with strong academics, including a competitive admission rate, a low student-faculty ratio and a record of getting students out of school on time. We award the most points for four-year graduation rates, but to reflect the benefit that comes from earning a degree—even if it takes more than four years—we've revised the rankings to award a handful of points for five- and six-year graduation rates. We also reward schools that do a stellar job of graduating students with financial need.
On the financial side, we look for schools with reasonable price tags, solid financial aid for students who qualify and low average debt among students who borrow. For our public colleges list, we rank the schools according to in-state costs and calculate out-of-state costs separately for the out-of-state ranking.
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Undergrad enrollment: 18,862
Four-year graduation rate: 84%
Total annual cost: $21,124 in-state; $47,307 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $3,517 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $22,214
The Tar Heels reign supreme yet again in Kiplinger's best-value rankings for public colleges. This is the 18th time UNC has taken the top spot on our in-state values list, as academics and substantial financial aid help cement its place as number one. While the four-year graduation rate has stayed steady at 84%, the school's 24% admission rate is more competitive than in recent years.
UNC's in-state sticker price is comparable to other public colleges on our list, but the school's average need-based aid cuts that by 83%, with in-state students paying just a little more than $3,500 a year to attend (the lowest in-state price in our public rankings). UNC is also one of two public colleges on our list to meet 100% of students' demonstrated financial need (The University of Virginia is the other). But for those who do borrow (roughly 40% of students), the average debt at graduation is $22,214.
Location: Gainesville, Fla.
Undergrad enrollment: 35,247
Four-year graduation rate: 68%
Total annual cost: $17,531 in-state; $39,809 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $9,919 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $22,192
The University of Florida is a bargain even for students who don't qualify for financial aid, with the lowest in-state sticker price of all of the schools in our top 10. The price drops to less than $10,000 once need-based aid is added, with the university meeting 97% of students' demonstrated financial need. Prospective Gators can look forward to choosing among more than 100 majors.
Test scores are still improving, and the four-year graduation rate held steady at about 68%. Forty-seven percent of students who are offered admission end up enrolling, and average debt at graduation is $22,192.
Location: Berkeley, Calif.
Undergrad enrollment: 30,307
Four-year graduation rate: 76%
Total annual cost: $31,194 in-state; $60,186 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $10,294 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $18,187
The University of California, Berkeley cruises comfortably to number 3 in the public rankings this year. The Golden Bears boast impressive graduation rates, competitive admissions, and high enrollment and retention. Forty-four percent of students who are offered admission enroll, with 97% of freshmen coming back for their sophomore year.
Incoming freshmen who qualify for need-based aid will receive an average of $20,900 in grants and scholarships, lowering the in-state sticker price by 67%, to $10,294. California families with annual income less than $80,000 are eligible for even more aid under the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which doles out up to $12,570 for the 2019-20 academic school year.
Location: Charlottesville, Va.
Undergrad enrollment: 16,655
Four-year graduation rate: 88%
Total annual cost: $30,294 in-state; $62,470 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $8,165 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $24,501
The University of Virginia has more than just a stellar men's basketball team going for it. UVA cracks the top 10 again in our best values in public colleges thanks to its strong academics and exemplary four-year graduation rate. Nearly 100% of freshmen chose to stay at UVA for their sophomore year, and 88% of students graduate in four years—the highest percentage out of all 100 public schools on our list.
UVA excels in the financial aid department, too. The university is one of two on our public colleges list that meet 100% of students' demonstrated financial need (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the other). The average need-based financial aid package is $22,129, bringing the in-state sticker price to $8,165—the third-lowest in the top 10.
Location: Seattle, Wash.
Undergrad enrollment: 31,331
Four-year graduation rate: 65%
Total annual cost: $25,215 in-state; $50,596 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $9,665 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $19,880
Seattle may be known for its grunge music scene in the 1990s, but it's also home to the University of Washington. Thanks in part to generous financial aid packages, it boasts the second-lowest average debt at graduation of our top 10 public colleges.
Once on campus, freshmen have a lot to choose from, with 1,800 courses offered each quarter between UW's campuses. Outside of class, students can explore Green Lake or Lake Washington, hike nearby Mount Si or Tiger Mountain, or explore the city of Seattle.
Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Undergrad enrollment: 29,821
Four-year graduation rate: 77%
Total annual cost: $27,844 in-state; $61,932 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $8,196 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $25,712
“Hail to the Victors" may have been voted the number one school fight song in 2018 by the College Football Fan index, but the Wolverines have more than just athletics to celebrate. The Ann Arbor institution has cracked the top 10 on our public college rankings due to a low average debt load at graduation and competitive admissions.
Big Blue retains 97% of freshmen and helps them graduate with a manageable debt load by beefing up its financial aid packages. The LEAD (Leadership, Excellence, Achievement and Diversity) Scholars program offers merit-based scholarships for students from underrepresented minority groups and school districts. The minimum award is $5,000 per year and is renewable for four years (or eight semesters). And as of 2018, the Go Blue Guarantee covers 100% of tuition for in-state students with family income of less than $65,000. Families with income of up to $180,000 are eligible to have a portion of tuition covered.
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.
Undergrad enrollment: 30,990
Four-year graduation rate: 75%
Total annual cost: $31,040 in-state; $60,032 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $10,551 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $22,013
UCLA is more than just the alma mater of gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose joyful floor routine became an internet sensation. Academics are competitive, and 75% of students graduate within four years.
Students can choose among more than 130 majors and 90 minors and join one (or more) of the 1,200-plus student organizations on campus. Interests range from Brazilian jiu-jitsu to Rubik's cubes to cheese. The school's location in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles offers students easy access to downtown for internships and job opportunities.
Location: Austin, Texas
Undergrad enrollment: 40,492
Four-year graduation rate: 58%
Total annual cost: $22,114 in-state; $49,084 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $12,657 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $24,883
The University of Texas at Austin, which is the flagship campus for the state school system, earns the eighth spot on our in-state public values list, due in part to low in-state costs and an environment that encourages students to return for their second year. The in-state sticker price is reduced by 43% when need-based aid is factored in, and the school meets 71% of students' demonstrated financial need. After arriving on the school's 431-acre main campus, Longhorns can select among more than 12,400 academic courses in more than 170 fields of undergraduate study.
Location: Tallahassee, Fla.
Undergrad enrollment: 33,008
Four-year graduation rate: 63%
Total annual cost: $18,183 in-state; $33,349 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $7,324 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $23,777
Florida State University's generous need-based financial aid awards for students who qualify bring the net price to about $7,000, the second lowest on our top 10 list. Out-of-state students are also in luck, with a sticker price that's the lowest of our top 10. The price for out-of-state students falls even more once need-based financial aid is factored in for eligible students. Students can join one of more than 700 student organizations on campus, or explore other parts of the Sunshine State.
Location: College Park, Md.
Undergrad enrollment: 29,868
Four-year graduation rate: 67%
Total annual cost: $24,274 in-state; $48,895 out-of-state
Total net cost (for students who qualify for aid): $14,296 in-state
Average debt at graduation: $28,122
Strong academics, including an 18-to-1 student-faculty ratio, earn the Terrapins the 10th spot on our in-state public colleges list. UMD, located between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, attracts and keeps talented students: An impressive 96% of students return to campus for their sophomore year. A reasonable sticker price and generous financial aid also help the school perform well in our rankings. Nearly 40% of students receive need-based aid, and the average annual award cuts the school's sticker price by more than 40% for in-state students.