As the cost of attending college continues to rise and many graduates struggle to repay student loans, families are putting pressure on colleges to justify their ever-growing price tags. Lawmakers, too, are pushing to improve cost transparency by beefing up tools to help families see what they’ll pay and reduce student borrowing. The proposed pieces of legislation, which have bipartisan support, would also provide families with more information about on-time graduation rates for students who attended a particular school and how successful graduates are at finding well-paying jobs.
Selecting a college and deciding how to pay for it have become high-stakes financial decisions. Over the past 20 years, tuition, fees, and room and board, adjusted for inflation, have increased by 59% at private, nonprofit four-year colleges and by a whopping 82% for in-state students attending public four-year colleges, according to the College Board. The average student-loan debt for those who borrow has increased 29% over the past 15 years, while the average earnings of recent college graduates—after adjusting for inflation—have remained relatively flat.
What hasn’t changed is Kiplinger’s definition of value: a high-quality education at an affordable price. We were the first to assess colleges based on a combination of a school’s academic merits and the cost of attendance. To that end, we present our annual list of 300 best-value colleges and universities to help you see how your options stack up. As in recent years, we give you a combined list of colleges as well as separate lists for the best values in private universities, private liberal arts colleges and public colleges.
When we crunch the numbers, quality comes first. We start by examining academic measures, including the school’s admission rate, the test scores of incoming freshmen and student-faculty ratios. To reward schools with a record of graduating students on time—sparing families the expense of an extra year—we award points only for four-year graduation rates. On the financial side, we give the most points to schools with affordable sticker prices and ample financial aid. We use in-state cost figures for the public college rankings, but we use costs for out-of-state students on the combined list to reflect the choice families face when comparing private schools with out-of-state public colleges.
This year, Princeton moves up two places to lead our combined best-values list. It also tops our list of private universities for the fourth time in as many years. This Ivy League institution racks up points for its highly selective, 7% admission rate, strong test scores and abundant financial aid. Nearly 60% of students—including some from families with incomes of $250,000 a year or more—receive need-based financial aid, the only kind Princeton offers. The school’s average financial aid award cuts the total cost for recipients to less than $14,000 a year. And at Princeton, as is the case with many other institutions near the top of our rankings, loans aren’t part of the deal. Since 2001, the school has awarded all financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants.
Among private liberal arts colleges, which are ranked separately from private universities to account for their different missions (liberal arts colleges typically focus on educating undergraduates, and private universities educate both graduate and undergraduate students), Davidson College moves to the head of the class, topping our list for the first time. This small, classic liberal arts college with a splash of southern charm has climbed our rankings in recent years, thanks to a more selective admission rate and robust financial aid awards that have kept the average cost after need-based aid relatively flat (for a closer look, see the box on page 30). A 90% four-year graduation rate helps solidify the school’s spot on our list. But Davidson also stands out for what it doesn’t do: saddle students with debt. In 2007, Davidson became the first liberal arts college to eliminate loans from all financial aid packages, instead meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need through scholarships, grants and campus jobs.
Perched at the top of our list of best public colleges for the 17th straight time—as many times as Kiplinger’s has ranked public colleges—is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC also claims the title of best out-of-state value. Stellar academics, including an 84% four-year graduation rate (among the highest of all public colleges on our list) and a 13-to-1 student-faculty ratio help cement the Tar Heels’ spot. Need-based aid awards averaging more than $17,000 a year make this public research university a bargain for in-state students who qualify—cutting the school’s in-state cost to $4,905 a year. UNC and the University of Virginia (number three on our list for both in-state and out-of-state value) are the only two public colleges in our rankings to meet 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need.
You don’t have to stick to the top of our lists to find great values. For example, Pomona College, a small liberal arts college of 1,660 students on California’s coast (number six in our combined ranking), boasts the highest four-year graduation rate of all 300 schools on our list. Rice University (number eight on our combined list) climbs nine places, reflecting its competitive, 15% admission rate, a 6-to-1 student-faculty ratio and liberal financial aid awards that have helped reduce student borrowing in recent years. The University of Florida (number 32 on the combined list) returns to the top 50 overall with stronger test scores than in previous years and a 67% four-year graduation rate. The school’s sticker price of less than $40,000 for out-of-state students is a deal for families who don’t expect to receive much need-based aid.