10 Best Values in Public Colleges, 2015
For 2014-15, the average sticker price at an in-state, four-year public school rose 3% to $18,943 (including tuition, fees, and room and board), according to the College Board.
For 2014-15, the average sticker price at an in-state, four-year public school rose 3% to $18,943 (including tuition, fees, and room and board), according to the College Board. Considering that the total average cost for private schools reached $42,419, attending school at an in-state public college remains an effective way of keeping costs in check.
We rank our top 100 public colleges and universities based on our definition of value: a quality education at an affordable price. Among the factors we consider: high four-year graduation rates, low student-faculty ratios, reasonable price tags and generous need-based aid for students who qualify. For the first time, we only give schools credit for four-year graduation rates because making it to graduation day on time keeps costs down.
Our public college rankings are based on in-state costs. These 10 schools lead the pack.
All of the schools featured here have a student-faculty ratio of 21:1 or less.
1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Undergraduate enrollment: 18,370
- 4-year grad rate: 81%
- Total annual cost: $20,412, in-state; $45,494, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $14,080
- Total net cost: $6,332
- Average graduating debt: $17,602
- Notable alumni: Basketball legend Michael Jordan, soccer legend Mia Hamm, comedian Lewis Black
The Tar Heels top our list of the best public colleges for the 14th straight time – as many times as Kiplinger’s has ranked public colleges. Located in Chapel Hill, Carolina’s selective admission rate (the school accepted 27% of applicants), impressive four-year graduation rate and generous financial aid programs also help the school claim a spot as one of two public colleges in the top 50 of our combined rankings of private universities, private liberal arts colleges and public schools.
Carolina is one of two schools on our list of public colleges to meet 100% of financial need, with the average need-based-aid award reducing annual in-state costs to $6,332. Much of this aid is awarded as grants (which don’t have to be repaid), rather than loans. Only 39% of students borrow (among the lowest numbers on our list).
Carolina’s reputation recently has been tainted by the revelation that for years, hundreds of students, about half of them athletes, were given inflated grades for classes they attended or credit for nonexistent courses. Many of the athletes were “steered” to the bogus classes by academic counselors. “This scandal is devastating to us,” says chancellor Carol Folt. So how can the Chapel Hill school maintain its spot atop our list? “Because our rankings live and die by the numbers,” explains Kiplinger editor Janet Bodnar. “And the scandal did not affect the overall academic quality and value that we measure.”
2. University of Virginia
- Undergraduate enrollment: 16,087
- 4-year grad rate: 86%
- Total annual cost: $24,520, in-state; $53,706, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $18,635
- Total net cost: $5,885
- Average graduating debt: $21,815
- Notable alumni: television journalist Katie Couric, actor and comedian Tina Fey, Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle
The “Academical Village” founded by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Va., earns second place on our list for its blend of academic quality and affordability. The university admits only 30% of applicants. Among incoming freshmen, 37% scored 700 or above on the verbal SAT, and 46% scored 700 or above on the math portion of the exam. The school does an impressive job of ushering students along to a timely graduation, sparing families the expense of an extra year of attendance. With 86% of students graduating within four years, UVA has the highest four-year graduation rate on our list of 100 public schools.
Along with top-ranked UNC-Chapel Hill, UVA is one of two public schools in our rankings that meet 100% of financial need. The average need-based-aid award of $18,635 slashes the school’s sticker price by 76% - reducing the annual cost for in-state students to $5,885 (the second-lowest after-aid cost in our top 100). The generous, grant-heavy aid awards reduce the need to take on debt: Only 35% of students borrow (the lowest among our top 10 public schools).
3. University of Florida
- Undergraduate enrollment: 33,168
- 4-year grad rate: 64%
- Total annual cost: $17,233, in-state; $39,511, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $6,874
- Total net cost: $10,359
- Average graduating debt: $20,708
- Notable alumni: U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, actress Faye Dunaway
At $17,233, the University of Florida’s in-state sticker price is the lowest on our top 10 list – making the school an attractive option, even for families who don’t expect to be awarded a bundle of need-based aid. But for families who do qualify for need-based aid, the average award of $6,874 reduces the in-state cost of attendance to $10,359. And for in-state students with strong academic records, Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship program helps cover tuition and fees.
Located in Gainsville, the largest public university on our top 10 list accepts 47% of students who apply, and half of those who are accepted choose to enroll. But the Florida Gators don’t make their way to the 2,000-acre Gainesville campus just for the reasonably priced tuition. The university offers 16 colleges of specialized study, and with more than 150 research centers and institutes, it is a national hub for medical and scientific research.
4. University of California, Berkeley
- Undergraduate enrollment: 25,951
- 4-year grad rate: 72%
- Total annual cost: $29,640, in-state; $54,270, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $23,099
- Total net cost: $6,541
- Average graduating debt: $17,468
- Notable alumni: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, children’s book author Beverly Cleary, actor Gregory Peck.
UC Berkeley jumped five places in our rankings this year, thanks to improved SAT scores and larger need-based-aid awards than in years past. Also propelling the Golden Bears to the top: the most competitive admission rate (just 18% of applicants are accepted) on our list of 100 public colleges, a modest cost increase of 1.2% for in-state students for the 2014-15 year, and the lowest average student debt in our top 10.
Although UC Berkeley is one of the most expensive public schools on our list, generous financial aid keeps the cost of attendance in check for families with financial need. The average need-based-aid award of $23,099 cuts the sticker price 78% – reducing the average in-state cost to $6,541 per year.
5. University of California, Los Angeles
- Undergraduate enrollment: 28,674
- 4-year grad rate: 69%
- Total annual cost: $27,128, in-state; $50,171, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $18,618
- Total net cost: $8,510
- Average graduating debt: $20,229
- Notable alumni: basketball Hall-of-Famer Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, actor George Takei, former U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan
Fierce competition for admission helps propel UCLA onto our top 10 public college values list. The school’s 20% admission rate is the second-lowest on our list of 100 public colleges. Fewer than one-fourth of admitted students score 700 or higher on the verbal portion of the SAT, but 45% earn top marks on the math portion. For students who qualify, an average need-based-aid award of $18,618 brings the net in-state cost to $8,510 per year. Students who borrow graduate with an average debt that’s about $5,400 lower than the national average for four-year public schools.
Campus life at UCLA, located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, offers course instruction from 109 academic departments as well as access to more than 1,000 clubs and student organizations. And Bruins can easily make the trip downtown to take advantage of the internship and job opportunities there.
6. University of Michigan
- Undergraduate enrollment: 28,283
- 4-year grad rate: 76%
- Total annual cost: $24,780, in-state; $53,200, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $13,879
- Total net cost: $10,901
- Average graduating debt: $27,163
- Notable alumni: iPod inventor Tony Fadell, economist and Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller, U.S. president Gerald Ford
After ascending in our rankings for several years, the University of Michigan, which is located in Ann Arbor, holds steady at number six this year. Modest cost increases and a consistently improving graduation rate helped the school climb our list in recent years. This year, a smaller student-faculty ratio, a slight decrease in average student debt and another lower-than-average cost increase for in-state students help this state flagship maintain its rank. For the 2014-15 academic year, UM’s sticker price increased 2.5% (compared with a national average of 3% for four-year public schools). And the average need-based-aid award more than kept pace with the increase, causing the cost for in-state students after need-based aid to actually decrease slightly to $10,901 this year.
7. College of William and Mary
- Undergraduate enrollment: 6,271
- 4-year grad rate: 83%
- Total annual cost: $29,250, in-state; $50,954, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $13,417
- Total net cost: $15,833
- Average graduating debt: $24,400
- Notable alumni: U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, TV host Jon Stewart, former U.S. secretary of defense and CIA director Robert Gates
The nation’s second-oldest college earns a spot in our top 10 thanks to its impressive 83% four-year graduation rate (second-best on our list of 100 public schools) and the lowest student-faculty ratio in our top 10. Admission to this “public ivy” is competitive: Only one-third of applicants are admitted. Located in Williamsburg, Va.,the school attracts some stellar students: 46% score 700 or higher on the verbal SAT, and 40% score 700 or higher on the math portion.
The average need-based-aid award at William and Mary drops the in-state sticker price 46% to $15,833. That’s a substantial reduction – but after need-based aid, the smallest school in our top 10 has the highest net cost for in-state students in our top 10.
8. University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Undergraduate enrollment: 31,319
- 4-year grad rate: 56%
- Total annual cost: $20,210, in-state; $36,460, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $9,390
- Total net cost: $10,820
- Average graduating debt: $25,664
- Notable alumni: Kimberly-Clark president Thomas Falk, film director Michael Mann, MLB commissioner Bud Selig
The Badgers have something to cheer about: For the second year in a row, the school’s net price has actually decreased for both in-state and out-of-state students. The school’s in-state sticker price rose a modest 1.3%, but an increase in the average need-based-aid award dropped the average cost for in-state students from $12,636 to $10,820.
Located in Madison, Wisconsin’s flagship school, the second-largest school in our top 10, accepts 51% of applicants. About a third of incoming freshmen scored 30 or higher on their ACTs. Of the students who are accepted, 42% choose to enroll – and after a year studying on the 933-acre campus along the shore of Lake Mendota, 95% return for a second year.
9. University of Maryland, College Park
- Undergraduate enrollment: 26,658
- 4-year grad rate: 66%
- Total annual cost: $21,190, in-state; $41,483, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $8,295
- Total net cost: $12,895
- Average graduating debt: $25,254
- Notable alumni: Muppets creator Jim Henson, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, comedian Larry David
Maryland’s flagship university slipped two places this year to number nine, after a 6.1% increase in the school’s in-state sticker price. Regardless, the average net price for in-state students still rings in at a reasonable $12,895 per year. And the school’s academics remain strong, with higher test scores for incoming students than last year and a three percentage point increase in the four-year graduation rate.
The university, located between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, admits 47% of applicants, and 95% of students return for their sophomore year. Two-thirds of students graduate within four years, and more than half of students earn their diploma without taking out student loans.
10. University of Georgia
- Undergraduate enrollment: 26,278
- 4-year grad rate: 58%
- Total annual cost: $20,882, in-state; $39,092, out-of-state
- Avg. need-based aid: $8,854
- Total net cost: $12,028
- Average graduating debt: $20,254
- Notable alumni: TV chef Alton Brown, former U.S. poet laureate Natalie Trethewey, television journalist Deborah Norville
After rapidly climbing in our rankings last year with improved test scores and a more-competitive admission rate, the University of Georgia, which is located in Athens, holds steady at number 10 this year. Just over half of applicants are offered admission, and nearly half of the students who are accepted choose to enroll (one of the highest yields in our top 10).
While the in-state sticker price nears $21,000, the average need-based-aid award cuts that figure 42% to $12,028. Georgia residents with excellent academic high school records can qualify for the Hope Scholarship. Fewer than half of UGA students take out loans – and at $20,254, the average debt at graduation is about $5,350 less than the national average for four-year public schools.