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As colleges and universities across the U.S. struggle with shrinking budgets and increased enrollment, here's the takeaway for soon-to-matriculate students: Look for schools that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked Kiplinger's No. 1 best value for public colleges and universities for a remarkable 10 times running, is a prime example. Carolina's admission rate remains among the lowest on our annual list; its students are among the most competitive; and its in-state cost, at $17,000, is not much higher than the average price ($16,140) for all public universities. For students who qualify for need-based aid, the total price for this top-tier university drops to an average of $7,020. (See this slide show for a look at the Top 10 Values in Public Colleges and the full list of the top 100 public college values.)

Carolina's performance is all the more exceptional considering the current climate for public higher education. Over the past few years, states have cut funding for colleges and universities by tens of millions of dollars. Enrollment and the demand for financial aid have surged. Federal stimulus funding, which provided crucial support, will soon run out, and Medicaid continues to deplete state coffers. "Everywhere you look, there is less money," says Shirley Ort, the director of the office of scholarships and student aid at Chapel Hill. Unlike past shortfalls, this one will likely affect higher education in "significant and probably permanent ways," says Charles Lenth, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association in Boulder, Colo.

Measuring value

In our annual assessment of best value, we identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best B.A. for the buck. We start with academic quality, including the school's student-faculty ratio, its admission rate and its four-year graduation rate. We then factor in affordability, such as the total cost of attendance with or without financial aid. (For more, see "How we rank the schools" and "FAQs about our public college rankings.")

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(See Kiplinger's full list of the top 100 here.)

Binghamton University (SUNY), ranked sixth overall, takes the No. 1 spot for out-of-state value for the third time in a row. It's an honor the school's president, C. Peter Magrath, might prefer to forgo. He complains that tuition is too low for a university whose admission rate, at 33%, rivals top schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill. Out-of-state students pay a total of $27,535 per year to attend Binghamton, less than the national average of $28,130. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal to transfer control over tuition -- and increases -- to the SUNY schools but will probably revisit the issue, says Magrath. Memo to non-New Yorkers: Grab this deal now.

Perennial stars in our rankings include the University of Florida (No. 2) and the New College of Florida (No. 11), both of which offer strong academics at a sticker price below $15,000. New College, a tiny honors school with a spectacular view of Sarasota Bay, drops the price to less than half that amount for in-staters who qualify for need-based aid. For a rock-bottom $4,545, students get the view, the company of other highly competitive students and a 10-1 student-faculty ratio. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (No. 48) earns top honors in the student-faculty category, with a ratio of 8-1.

Two Virginia schools deserve special Kiplinger kudos for consistently maintaining their position among our top five since our first rankings, in 1998. The University of Virginia (No. 3) and the College of William and Mary (No. 4) each draw high-scoring incoming freshmen and post the highest four-year graduation rates on our list, delivering degrees to more than 80% of their students in four years and more than 90% in six. UVA also brings its cost after aid to students with need to less than $6,000.

Virtually all of the schools we list raised their price in 2010-11, but the University of Maryland, which maintained a tuition freeze for four straight years, kept this year's total cost increase to less than $600. The first-class flagship continues its march up our rankings, moving from No. 8 last year to No. 5 in 2010-11. As for the lowest sticker price, that distinction belongs to the University of North Carolina at Asheville (No. 58). In-state students pay only $12,762. Appalachian State (No. 35), in Boone, N.C., runs just a few dollars more, at $12,775.