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