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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