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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Delivering bargains

Like Carolina and Truman State, the colleges on our list have all performed their share of fiscal legerdemain over the past 12 months. Some of them have bumped up the number of students per faculty member. Others have left a larger gap than in previous years between the financial aid they offer and the cost of attendance. Virtually all have raised costs for students.

For all the numbers-juggling, these schools continue to deliver a great education at prices that put private schools to shame. Consider our No. 1 school, UNC-Chapel Hill. North Carolina's flagship institution boasts a highly competitive admission rate, a strong record for graduating students on time, an in-state cost that barely exceeds the national average and an admirable record on student borrowing: More than two-thirds of Carolina students graduate debt-free.

In terms of financial aid, "we've done really well at Carolina because of the commitment on the part of the administration to take care of students," says Shirley Ort, associate provost and director for scholarships and student aid. Carolina's total annual in-state cost after need-based aid runs a mere $6,548; it is one of only two institutions in our top 100 (the other is the University of Virginia) that meet the full need of students who qualify.

UNC also stands out for its value to out-of-state students, who now pay a sticker price of $37,454 per year -- not chump change but far less than the $54,000-plus price tags of nearby competitors Duke and Wake Forest. In a departure from most public colleges, Carolina extends the same level of financial aid to out-of-state students that it affords in-state students. Says Ort, "Our feeling is that if we've granted them admission, we need to remove the financial barriers."

A glance through our top 100 reveals other good deals. North Georgia College and State University (No. 88), for instance, runs less than $14,000 a year for in-state students and keeps average debt at graduation to $10,021. And talk about a steal: The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (No. 93) charges $11,230 to in-state students and $18,190 to out-of-staters, making it the lowest-cost institution in our rankings.

Those numbers don't even factor in financial aid, which makes tuition affordable at some of the top public institutions in the country. For instance, at the University of Virginia, families who qualify for need-based aid pay an average annual in-state cost of only $5,138, dirt cheap for this "public Ivy." And here's good news for all the parents of prospective 'Hoos: Because UVA graduates 85% of its students within four years, you likely won't be forking out for an extra year.

 
Top 20 best values in public colleges
Rank (in-state)Rank (out-of-state)NameLocationAdmiss-ions rate4-year gradua-tion rateTotal cost per year (in-state)Cost after need-based aid (in-state)Total cost per year (out-of-state)Cost after need-based aid (out-of-state)Average debt at gradua-tion
11The University of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel Hill, N.C.32%76%$17,628$6,548$37,454$26,374$16,165
28University of FloridaGainesville, Fla.43%59%$15,526$8,079$37,803$30,356$16,013
35University of VirginiaCharlottes-ville, Va.33%85%$21,626$5,138$45,948$29,460$19,384
44The College of William and MaryWilliams-burg, Va.32%82%$23,054$11,499$45,331$33,776$21,367
519New College of FloridaSarasota, Fla.53%57%$15,458$5,316$38,487$28,345$11,458
69University of GeorgiaAthens, Ga.59%54%$19,258$10,288$37,468$28,498$15,938
77University of CaliforniaBerkeley, Calif.22%69%$29,027$13,164$51,905$36,042$16,056
810University of MarylandCollege Park, Md.44%63%$19,409$12,450$36,780$29,821$22,696
96University of California , Los AngelesLos Angeles, Calif.23%68%$28,174$15,397$51,052$38,275$16,733
1013University of California, San DiegoSan Diego, Calif.38%57%$26,232$10,317$49,110$33,195$18,757
113State University of New York, College at GeneseoGeneseo, N.Y.38%62%$18,134$13,758$27,184$22,808$21,200
122State University of New York at BinghamtonBinghamton, N.Y.40%66%$20,026$13,310$28,136$21,420$21,110
1311University of Wisconsin-MadisonMadison, Wisc.58%51%$18,590$12,733$34,340$28,483$22,837
1418University of WashingtonSeattle57%54%$21,152$12,432$38,636$29,916$16,219
1521University of North Carolina at WilmingtonWilming-ton, N.C.57%45%$14,159$7,367$25,980$19,188$19,277
1624University of MichiganAnn Arbor, Mich.51%72%$23,953$13,170$49,910$38,842$27,828
1716University of California, Santa BarbaraSanta Barbara, Calif.46%64%$28,100$12,711$31,404$34,521$17,596
1831Florida State UniversityTalla-hassee, Fla.60%50%$16,554$11,847$31,404$27,014$20,993
1926North Carolina State UniversityRaleigh, N.C.54%41%$16,554$6,896$29,389$18,731$19,988
2022University of California, DavisDavis, Calif.45%51%$28,147$13,263$51,024$36,141$16,659
See Kiplinger's complete public rankings

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