Hanes Hall on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill © UNC at Chapel Hill

For public colleges and universities, the march out of the recession has become a long, slow slog. State appropriations for higher education have been gutted. The federal stimulus money that sustained colleges for several years is just about gone. Enrollment keeps climbing, the demand for financial aid remains high, and the average annual tuition increase is heading toward double digits.

Given these hard times in higher ed, the word value takes on special resonance. We've retooled our rankings to give more weight to criteria we consider crucial to academic value, including the percentage of students who return for sophomore year and the four-year graduation rate. Each category measures a college's ability to keep students engaged and on track for graduation. On the cost side, we continue to reward colleges with low sticker prices and abundant financial aid. But now, as student debt grows worrisome, we give bonus points to colleges that keep borrowing low.

Where does our new methodology take us? Back to where we started, with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This stellar school tops our ranking of the best values in public colleges and universities for the 11th consecutive time -- and this year it takes top honors for out-of-state value as well. From the fat years of the late 1990s through the post-2008 recession, UNC-Chapel Hill has been a leader for academic excellence, low cost and generous financial aid -- exactly the criteria by which we define value.

Other value leaders include the University of Florida (No. 2 on our list), the University of Virginia (No. 3) and the College of William & Mary (No. 4). The University of Florida and New College of Florida (No. 5) not only post prices that are less than half the average for private schools -- $38,589, according to the College Board -- but also beat the national average for public schools ($17,131), underlining the weight we give to affordability.

Cuts to higher-education funding

Carolina is no stranger to budget cuts: It has lost more than $231 million in state revenue since 2008. Several years ago, the university hired consultants Bain & Co. to help streamline operations. The resulting cuts, mostly to administrative functions, saved the university $50 million a year while keeping classroom operations intact. "I'm really proud of the work we've done to shelter undergraduate teaching," says Chancellor Holden Thorp. "We're running out of ways to do that." This year, the college increased class size, eliminated course sections and reduced faculty. In a meeting with the UNC board of governors, Tom Ross, the president of the UNC system, said, "The easy decisions are gone."

College administrators around the country are facing -- and making -- similarly tough calls, including eliminating or consolidating programs, increasing teaching loads, hiring more part-time faculty and increasing class sizes. State revenues have rebounded over the past year, says Daniel Hurley, of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But, he says, public colleges can expect "a very long and slow climb back in terms of regaining state funding."

Truman State University, No. 23 on our list, is a liberal-arts college in Kirksville, Mo., and a fixture in our rankings for its across-the-board value. "We took a look at all our operations and asked ourselves, Does this help us accomplish our mission?" says President Troy Paino. "What didn't, we cut." The ax fell on a campus recycling center that served the whole community and a crime lab that was available to law-enforcement agencies but off-limits to students. "In a time of diminished resources, focus is critically important," says Paino. "Our focus is on students and learning."

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