The cost of a public college education continues to rise, despite an improving economy. The University of Maryland recently announced a rare midyear tuition increase of about 2%. The governing board of the University of North Carolina system is considering hiking tuition 4% next year and 3.5% the following year for state residents. And University of California leaders say they’ll have to raise tuition 28% over the next five years unless the state gives the system more money.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for students and parents to cast a wide net in their college search. It may seem counterintuitive, but don’t be put off by high sticker prices, particularly at private colleges and universities with generous financial aid packages. Students with top grades and stellar test scores or other attributes attractive to colleges may be eligible for discounts of up to 70% off the published price. Here are 10 schools from Kiplinger’s 2015 combined list of 300 best college values where the net price tag per student (tuition, fees, room and board, and books) after financial aid is $20,000 a year or less.
Kiplinger's combined rank includes both public and private colleges.
1. Berea College
- Average net cost: $4,326
- Location: Berea, Ky.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,623
- Total annual cost: $7,892
- Average need-based aid: $3,566
Berea’s net price is lower than the price tag for many two-year public colleges. The liberal arts college, founded by abolitionists, provides every student with the equivalent of a full-tuition scholarship; the school only accepts students with demonstrated financial need. All students work 10 to 15 hours per week, which they put toward books, food and other expenses.
2. Brigham Young University
- Average net cost: $13,532
- Location: Provo, Utah
- Undergraduate enrollment: 27,765
- Total annual cost: $18,322
- Average need-based aid: $4,790
BYU, which is led and supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a good deal even before financial aid is factored in. The sticker price for non-Mormons is $18,322 (for Mormons, it’s $13,322). The average net price after need-based aid is $13,532 for non-Mormons. More than half the classes have fewer than 20 students.
3. Yale University
- Average net cost: $16,582
- Location: New Haven, Conn.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 5,430
- Total annual cost: $60,850
- Average need-based aid: $44,268
If you manage to get admitted -- and only 7% of applicants do -- Yale will make sure you can afford to attend. The average net price for Yale students is about $16,500 a year, thanks to the school’s generous financial aid program. Better yet, Yale’s financial aid package doesn’t include student loans, so students who borrow leave with only about $13,000, on average, in student debt, versus more than an average of $31,200 for borrowers at private, nonprofit institutions.
4. Amherst College
- Average net cost: $16,602
- Location: Amherst, Mass.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,785
- Total annual cost: $62,206
- Average need-based aid: $45,604
A total of 60% of students who attend this elite liberal arts school receive need-based financial aid, in no-loan awards. Small classes (the average class size is 16), an eight-to-one student-faculty ratio, and access to more than 300 cultural events a year keep students intellectually engaged; 98% of freshmen return for sophomore year. Students who need a break from the books can ramble around Amherst’s 1,000-acre campus, which includes a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary.
5. Thomas Aquinas College
- Average net cost: $16,716
- Location: Santa Paula, Calif.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 366
- Total annual cost: $32,500
- Average need-based aid: $15,784
This Catholic college, which is surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, has no departments, majors or textbooks; instead, students participate in discussion-style classes that focus on the Great Books. A total of 80% of students receive need-based financial aid, and the average grant covers 49% of the sticker price.
6. Harvard University
- Average net cost: $17,632
- Location: Cambridge, Mass.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 6,722
- Total annual cost: $59,607
- Average need-based aid: $41,975
The nation’s oldest institution of higher education is surprisingly affordable for the students who meet its high standards (only 6% of applicants are accepted). More than 60% of students receive need-based aid, in no-loan financial aid packages. And that definition of need is generous: Families with income well into the six figures are eligible. Harvard’s generosity keeps average debt at graduation to $12,560, among the lowest of the schools in our combined rankings.
7. Pomona College
- Average net cost: $17,946
- Location: Claremont, Calif.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,612
- Total annual cost: $61,432
- Average need-based aid: $43,486
With lush grounds and a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pomona boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. But students don’t linger to admire the scenery. Ninety-three percent graduate within four years (the highest rate of all 300 schools in our rankings), sparing students and families the cost of an extra year or more. Like several of our other best values, Pomona doesn’t include loans in its financial aid awards, which keeps the average debt among undergraduates who borrow to $13,441. The California sunshine is free.
8. Washington and Lee University
- Average net cost: $18,212
- Location: Lexington, Va.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,855
- Total annual cost: $58,062
- Average need-based aid: $39,850
Washington and Lee is a prime example of why you need to look beyond the sticker price when searching for best values. W&L’s average need-based grant of $39,850 cuts the school’s sticker price by nearly 70%. But even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, you may get a break on the sticker price: Of the W&L students without demonstrated need, 13% receive merit aid, at an average award of about $35,000.
9. Williams College
- Average net cost: $19,305
- Location: Williamstown, Mass.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,077
- Total annual cost: $61,870
- Average need-based aid: $42,565
This liberal arts school, established in 1793, provides financial aid to 51% of students. Families with incomes of up to $230,400 are eligible for financial aid. Only 29% of students borrow, and the average debt upon graduation is $12,474. Williams' three academic divisions -- languages and the arts, social sciences, and science and math -- offer 25 departments and 36 majors. The student-faculty ratio is seven to one, and about 39% of students graduate with dual majors.
10. Stanford University
- Average net cost: $19,428
- Location: Stanford. Calif.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 7,061
- Total annual cost: $59,888
- Average need-based aid: $40,460
Only 6% of applicants get into this prestigious research university, which ties with Harvard for competitiveness. The Stanford community includes 21 Nobel laureates, making the five-to-one student-faculty ratio (the lowest on our list of under-$20,000 schools) even more valuable. Like Pomona, Stanford’s Golden State campus is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in the U.S.
Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.
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