Image: Young man in graduation gown taking self-portrait photograph with father on campus © Thomas M. Barwick INC, Digital Vision, Getty Images

Imagine that you had the money to send your child to any private college in the country. Then imagine that your kid was talented enough to be accepted at any college in the country. With all those choices, you'd still want a college that delivered the best bang for the buck, wouldn't you? In the real world, where money is tight and your selection limited, you have every reason to expect the same thing.

We're here to help. As always, our 2011-12 rankings of the best values in private colleges and universities identify institutions that are both academically strong and affordable -- our definition of value. This year, however, we took a fresh look at the criteria that go into that definition to better reflect the matters that affect real families, and we tweaked our presentation so you can better fit the school to your circumstances.

For example, we now assign more points to the four-year graduation rate than to the five-year rate -- the faster your student graduates, the more money you save. Freshman retention -- the percentage of students who return after the first year -- remains a major factor in our rankings. "It tells you whether this is likely to be a good school for the long haul," says Jane Wellman of the Delta Project, which studies college finance. On the cost side, we give added weight to colleges that rein in student debt.

Those changes have sharpened our focus, but they don't turn the previous rankings on their head. Princeton, this year's No. 1 value among private universities, has appeared at or near the top of our list for several years running, thanks to its outstanding academic quality and generous financial aid policies. Pomona, ranked first among liberal arts colleges, makes its third appearance at the top of the liberal arts list for a similarly stellar showing. In each case, the new criteria confirmed what we already knew: These schools deliver consistently great value.

Higher costs, more aid

In this struggling economy, you'd think that private schools would have priced themselves out of the market. In fact, enrollment at these schools is rising, and not just among the affluent. Private colleges are attracting more low-income students, students who are the first in their family to attend college and students of color, says David Warren of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Meanwhile, sticker prices keep rising, by an average annual rate of about 4.5%. The price tag at private institutions currently runs an average of about $37,000 a year; many colleges blew past the $50,000 mark several years ago.

Still, "the important thing is to not obsess on posted tuition, because there is so much financial aid out there," says Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. That aid allows more students -- including low-income ones -- to attend. The need-based aid packages in our list generally rose in lockstep with rising prices. At Princeton, average aid knocks the total cost from $50,269 a year to less than $16,000, a bargain by any definition. At Pomona, aid reduces the $54,010 sticker price to less than $20,000.

Most top-tier schools, including Princeton and Pomona, restrict their financial aid to families with need; lower-tier colleges woo students with merit scholarships (otherwise known as tuition discounts). Those discounts reduce the price for freshmen by an average of 49%, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. College administrators and policymakers call the discount level "unsustainable," but for now, the money is on the table, and students are grabbing it.

Preserving value

Whether they charge the full amount or fire-sale prices, private colleges spend more per student than public colleges do, offer better service and smaller classes, and devote more resources to the campus setting. "They're selling the whole experience," says Wellman. That nurturing environment also gives students a straighter shot to a diploma. Private colleges have a far better record of graduating their students within four years than their public counterparts do.

Since the recession, private colleges have tried to protect both their core academic enterprise and student services while cutting nonessentials to the bone, says Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. As a result, expect to find fewer assistant deans and more academic counselors, fewer climbing walls and better health facilities, the same small classes but more career counseling.

"Nobody pretends that this is not a more difficult budget-balancing act," Warren says. Among college administrators, "the word that comes up most is 'value.'"

The colleges and universities in our rankings exemplify that standard. Two-thirds of our top 100 institutions bested the four-year graduation rate for all private colleges (51%) by at least 30 percentage points. At 92 of our top 100 schools, 90% or more of freshmen returned for their sophomore year. And despite the budget cutting, almost all of our top 100 institutions maintained their already low student-to-faculty ratio.

As for cost, here's a minor miracle: Ten colleges and eight universities out of our 100 didn't charge a sticker price of $50,000-plus this year, and three -- Wheaton and Hillsdale on the liberal arts side and Elon among universities -- managed to keep their price below $40,000.

Sewanee put itself in a class of its own by cutting its total cost by 10%, to a relatively modest $42,318. Centre College and Gustavus Adolphus stand out among liberal arts colleges, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Portland shine on the university side for spreading their financial aid generously between need-based and non-need-based aid.

Princeton meets its goal

Ten years ago, Princeton took the unprecedented step of eliminating loans from its financial aid package, with the goal of shrinking student borrowing almost to the vanishing point. Mission accomplished: Princeton's average debt -- $5,225 -- is the lowest on both our lists, and its students now borrow mostly for convenience, says Robin Moscato, the director of financial aid.

"They do so for reasons such as purchasing a laptop or replacing the work-study requirement. It's a choice they make to improve their Princeton experience," Moscato says.

Princeton uses its no-loan financial aid policy to further another longtime goal: increasing diversity on campus. This Ivy League institution offers need-based aid to 57% of its students and would like to see that number grow. "We're always seeking and hoping to enroll more talented, qualified students from lower-income backgrounds," says Moscato.

Students lucky enough to attend under any circumstance receive an outstanding education. Set on a storied campus, Princeton offers small classes, a broad-based curriculum, a student body filled with superstars and a faculty that practically teems with Nobel Prize winners. Its freshman retention rate is 98%, for good reason. Why would anyone leave?

Pomona sets priorities

When Pomona first topped our list in February 2009, President David Oxtoby faced a set of tough choices. The recession had sapped the school's endowment and increased the demand for financial aid. Alumni donations had stalled. Pomona's ambitious plans for new arts facilities and new residence halls suddenly seemed, well, too ambitious.

Three years later, Pomona has rebounded with a recovering endowment, replenished donations and two state-of-the art residence halls. A campaign to fund the arts facilities, delayed for a year, is back on track. And the academic quality and plentiful financial aid that have twice before made Pomona our top-ranked college put it at the top again.

But the school is now making do with less, and some of the small luxuries that give Pomona its private-school cachet have dwindled or disappeared. Staff members who left have not been replaced. A member of the Claremont Colleges, Pomona has "significantly expanded" its cooperation with the four other undergraduate schools in the consortium, sharing resources and programs.

"We're not trying to do as much on our own," says Oxtoby. Pomona's signature outdoor-adventure program was cut back, and the chocolate-tasting extravaganza that kicked off exam week is no more.

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Leslie Appleton of Phoenix considers Pomona's small class sizes, high quality and liberal arts focus well worth the price of admission, regardless of recent cutbacks.

"The best thing you get out of a place like Pomona is learning how to explore different things, and the emphasis on holistic education is good for developing critical-thinking skills. I honestly believe I'm getting a superb value out of my education."

As for the chocolate party, Appleton, a senior, laughs. "That was hard to give up."

Private universities top 10
SchoolLocationAdmis-sions rateStu-dents per fa-culty4-year gradu-ation rateTotal cost per yearAverage need-based aidAverage non-need-based aid% of
non-need-based aid
Average debt at gradu-ation
Princeton UniversityPrinceton, N.J.9%690.1%$50,269$34,719$00%$5,225
Yale UniversityNew Haven, Conn.8%689%$53,700$38,914$00%$9,254
California Institute of TechnologyPasadena, Calif.13%380.7%$50,703$31,030$40,8885%$10,760
Rice UniversityHouston21%682.5%$48,621$27,671$14,77233%$13,944
Harvard UniversityCambridge, Mass.7%787.2%$53,652$39,156$00%$10,102
University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphia14%688.4%$55,136$32,443$00%$17,013
Duke UniversityDurham, N.C.19%886.8%$55,245$35,578$21,15813%$21,884
Columbia UniversityNew York City6%687.9%$59,208$38,356$00%NA
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridge, Mass.10%884.5%$53,557$35,504$00%$15,228
Stanford UniversityStanford, Calif.7%678.4%$54,798$37,930$3,32925%$14,058
Liberal arts colleges top 10
SchoolLocationAdmis-sions rateStu-dents per fa-culty4-year gradu-ation rateTotal cost per yearAverage need-based aidAverage non-need-based aid% of non-need-based aidAverage debt at gradu-ation
Pomona CollegeClaremont, Calif.15%790.6%$54,010$34,674$00%$10,592
Washington and Lee UniversityLexington, Va.19%991.7%$34,315$34,315$27,11715%$23,807
Swarthmore CollegeSwarthmore, Penn.16%888.8%$54,400$35,033$39,2601%$18,739
Williams CollegeWilliamstown, Mass.19%791%$55,360$39,274$00%$8,369
Davidson CollegeDavidson, N.C.29%1088.7%$50,723$24,873$18,50318%$23,233
Hamilton CollegeClinton, N.Y.29%984.2%$54,770$33,381$31,4973%$16,982
Vassar CollegePoughkeepsie, N.Y.24%889.6%$56,635$36,353$00%$18,153
Wellesley CollegeWellesley, Mass.34%883.5%$54,050$36,299$00%$12,495
Bowdoin CollegeBrunswick, Maine20%989.6%$55,290$35,590$1,0009%$18,229
Amherst CollegeAmherst, Mass.15%888.8%$55,098$39,098$00%$12,843