03.23.09

20 Colleges Worth the Price

With the economy tanking and lending down, who can afford tuition? From low prices to hefty scholarships to creative accounting, Kathleen Kingsbury ranks the schools with the highest marks in value.

UPDATE: 5 More Colleges Worth the Price

As college-admissions offices start to mail decision letters this week, the tension around many families’ kitchen tables is growing. Sure, parents are worried about whether or not their kid will get into his first choice. But with the stock market plummeting and credit dried up, the real $64,000 (and up) question this year is: How to pay for it? Tuition alone averaged at least $25,000 at private colleges and $6,500 at public ones last fall. “There’s going to be a lot of handholding in college-admissions and financial-aid offices this spring,” says Tom Mortenson, a higher-education analyst. “People are scared stiff.”

So The Daily Beast set out to find the top 20 best values this year. Talking to higher-education experts, high-school guidance counselors, and college consultants generated a list of schools experts say are worth the expense. To winnow the field and rank the contenders, we placed academic qualifications—such as GPAs, SAT scores, student-faculty ratios, faculty degrees, and graduation rates—against the bottom line of tuition and fees. Some colleges made the list for their tough curriculums and low tuitions. Others because grads’ earning potential is high and financial-aid packages are generous. Of course, there will always be a disparity between what state residents pay in tuition and fees compared to students who are coming from out of state. In some states, however, that difference is worth the cost. And there are even some schools that are completely free… if you can get in.

Every student at Cooper Union this fall will get a $33,000 full-tuition scholarship, making it a great deal if you’re interested in one of the school’s three majors: architecture, art, and engineering.

Here’s a look at the colleges and universities where you’ll get the best bang for your buck in the coming year:

1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill A solid academic reputation, reasonably priced tuition, and excellent athletic teams has made this large research institution a top choice for decades. UNC-Chapel Hill’s ability to meet 100 percent of financial need makes it an even more obvious addition to this list. The Carolina Covenant, as it is called, allows low-income students to graduate debt-free. “UNC proves that saving money doesn't mean sacrificing quality,” says Maureen O’Rourke, a Boston high-school college counselor. “That’s the kind of value people are looking for these days.”

2. Harvard University Whatever the cost, a Harvard degree will always open doors. But in recent years, Harvard has also made its financial-aid packages so generous that it’s one of the country’s most-affordable options, too. Harvard officials sent shock waves through academia in 2007 by detailing a new financial-aid policy that will charge families making up to $180,000 just 10 percent of their household income per year, substantially subsidizing the annual cost of more than $45,600 for all but its wealthiest students. That means it costs more to pay in-state tuition at Berkeley than to attend Harvard. One possible hitch? This largesse is funded by Harvard’s huge endowment, which has lost at least $8 billion since last June. Waiting in the wings, though, are Princeton and Stanford, both of which have recently revamped their aid policies to be more munificent as well.

3. New College of Florida This Sarasota institution is the state of Florida’s public honors college—it’s known for a rigorous, if unconventional, teaching style. All courses are pass/fail, and professors offer assessments through written evaluations. New College’s 650 students earned average SAT scores in the top percentile, and the average GPA of admitted students is 3.94. Plus, out-of-state tuition is 40 percent less than the national average for private schools, and 96 percent of financial-aid need is met.

4. Rice University Often called the Ivy of the South, Rice easily has the lowest annual pricetag of any highly selective private school in the country. At $31,000 next fall, its tuition is thousands of dollars less than the Ivy League. Add in low fees and reasonable housing costs, and Rice grads have one of the lowest debt burden among peers at similar schools. In fact, most students graduate with no debt at all. Need-based loans are capped at under $3,000 per year thanks to the college’s hefty endowment. Before the financial crash this fall, the enviable endowment-to-student ratio worked out to about $780,000 to one.

5. Swarthmore College Nearly half of all undergrads at this small, liberal-arts college outside Philadelphia receive some type of aid as Swarthmore meets 100 percent of the demonstrated need for U.S. citizens. It does so by replacing loans with grants in financial-aid packages, spending $1.7 million to do so from its $1.5 billion endowment. That’s a practice that has become common among several elite schools, including Massachusetts’ Williams and Amherst Colleges and Davidson College in North Carolina. What sets Swarthmore apart is a handful of merit-based scholarships that make it even more affordable.

6. Cooper Union Every student at Cooper Union this fall will get a $33,000 full-tuition scholarship, making it a great deal if you’re interested in one of the school’s three majors: architecture, art, and engineering. Getting in requires good grades and test scores—only 11 percent of applicants are admitted. Once there, the student-faculty ratio is 8 to 1, and three-quarters of alumni go on to grad school. One cost Cooper Union doesn’t cover? The price of living in New York City.

7. University of Virginia UVA is one of the toughest public universities to get into in the nation. Its applicants have top SAT scores and an average GPA of 4.05. Once there, students can relish its beautiful Charlottesville setting, superb faculty, great sports teams, and even good state-school parties. For Virginia residents, the cost per year is low—just $8,500 in 2007-2008. Out-of-state tuition, however, skyrockets to nearly $28,000. Luckily UVA is a rare state university with a large endowment, so it covers 100 percent of demonstrated need, largely through grants.

8. California Institute of Technology Caltech long ago established its academic bona fides—the Pasadena mecca for tech-geeks last year admitted just 17 percent of applicants. On campus, the student-faculty ratio is 3-to-1. But Caltech also meets 100 percent of demonstrated need for every aid recipient, and two-thirds of students receive some type of university aid, either in the form of merit scholarships or grants.

9. United States Naval Academy Attending any U.S. military academy is free. In fact, starting in the first year, students are paid a monthly stipend. Of course, much of that amount goes to paying for books, uniforms, and services, but at the Naval Academy, anything left over can be socked away in the Midshipmen Investment Fund, which invests in mutual funds. Getting in is tough—a congressional nomination is needed. After graduation, however, the sky’s the limit when it comes to career options—that is, once you fulfill your five-year military commitment.

10. Brigham Young University It’s hard to find a better bargain than BYU. Annual tuition is less than $4,000 to attend classes on the school’s pristine Provo, Utah, campus. Top firms regularly recruit from BYU and its graduates attend some of the best MBA, medical, and law programs in the country. One catch: If you aren’t a Mormon, you’ll pay more to attend BYU. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports the school financially through the tithing of its members around the world. The church’s deep pockets have bankrolled world-class facilities, faculty, and athletic teams.

11. College of William & Mary As a public institution—yes, William & Mary is a state school—tuition is low, just over $5,000 a year for Virginia residents. But only the cream of crop in high-school seniors will roam this idyllic campus come fall. William & Mary accepts just 34 percent of applicants, and more than three-quarters of freshmen were in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Alums go on to first-tier graduate programs and prestigious careers—comedian Jon Stewart, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and five U.S. presidents count among their numbers.

12. Webb Institute Sometimes it pays to specialize. Funded by a 19th-century naval architect, tuition is free at the Webb Institute, one of the best schools on earth if you’re interested in learning how to build ships. Located on New York's Long Island, the program is an intense curriculum of math and science with a student-faculty ratio of 12 to 1. Students pay only living expenses, which federal grants and loans often cover.

13. Pomona College Nearly 90 percent of Pomona’s freshmen were in the top 10th percentile of their high-school class. To bring the best of the best to its Southern California campus, Pomona guarantees 100 percent of need is met. This promise extends even to international students—a rare inclusion—in order to maintain diversity.

14. The SUNY system New York state’s university system attracts some of the brightest students in the nation, and even out-of-state costs, at about $22,000, are low compared to similar state institutions. SUNY-Binghamton and SUNY-Geneseo especially stand out. More than 80 percent of financial need is met by both schools, and students on average leave the system with less than $20,000 in debt. This affordability may soon change, though—students throughout the state marched in protest late last semester when it was announced that New York would cut more than a quarter of its higher-education budget.

15. Cornell University Most of Cornell’s prestigious programs are private and cost nearly $50,000 for tuition plus living expenses this school year. But one little-known fact about the Ithaca university is that it is, in part, a land-grant state institution. That means three undergraduate colleges—Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Industrial and Labor Relations—are state schools. In-state tuition is $14,624 for New York residents, about half the cost of private Cornell.

16. Yale University Second only, perhaps, to Harvard or Princeton, Yale grads see their Ivy League pedigree pay off in spades, whether in landing the best job or getting into the best grad program. Yale’s admissions have been entirely need-blind for 30 years, and all financial need is met through scholarships and loans. But even for students receiving Yale scholarships, the average family responsibility in 2007-2008 was still more than $20,000 per year.

17. University of Georgia Football, barbeque, and fraternity parties are the usual draws to Athens, Georgia. But state residents can also find a good deal on education. Any high-school senior with a 3.0 GPA or higher qualifies for the state’s HOPE scholarships, which are funded by lottery proceeds. That has amounted to $2.9 billion in aid to students in the past 15 years.

18. Centre College Each year more than 85 percent of Centre College’s students receive some form of financial aid, two-thirds of which is need-based. Plus, tuition at this small private college outside Lexington, Kentucky, is already low at $28,000. Centre’s selling point, though, is the Centre Commitment, which guarantees every student the chance to study abroad, an internship, and graduation in four years—or they get up to an additional year of study tuition-free. An impressive 97 percent of Centre’s graduates complete their degrees in four years.

19. Vanderbilt University True, attending Vanderbilt is expensive—total costs at the Nashville institution were about $51,000 this school year. But some 60 percent of undergrads received aid and an additional third got need-based grants. That aid totaled nearly $70 million from the school’s endowment in the 2007-2008 school year—a generosity that eclipsed even Harvard’s.

20. The College of New Jersey Located an hour from both New York and Philadelphia, the College of New Jersey in Ewing offers small class sizes and quality students—the majority of those admitted last year ranked in the top quarter of their high-school class. The school admits less than half of applicants, making it highly selective for a public institution. It also offers a host of merit scholarships for both in-state and out-of-state students that can cover up to full tuition costs.

RELATED: 5 More Colleges Worth the Price by Kathleen Kingsbury

CORRECTION: This article originally referred to The Carolina Covenant as The Carolina Commitment.

Plus: Check out our College Admissions page, for full coverage of who's getting in, who isn't, and how the system really works.

Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.