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Best Values in Public Colleges 2011

As schools struggle with shrinking budgets and increased enrollment, look for those that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad.

SEE OUR SLIDE SHOW: Best Values in Private Colleges 2012

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked Kiplinger's number-one best value for public colleges and universities for a remarkable ten 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.

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, 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.

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Measuring value

In our annual assessment of best value, we identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best BA 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.)

Binghamton University (SUNY), ranked sixth overall, takes the number-one 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 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 (number two) and the New College of Florida (number 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 (number 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 (number three) and the College of William and Mary (number four) 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 number eight last year to number five in 2010-11. As for the lowest sticker price, that distinction belongs to the University of North Carolina at Asheville (number 58). In-state students pay only $12,762. Appalachian State (number 35), in Boone, N.C., runs just a few dollars more, at $12,775.

Faced with a state budget crisis of epic proportions, University of California schools were forced to bump up costs by as much as $3,500 a year for in-state students and more than $4,000 for out-of-state students, pushing several UC schools past the $50,000 mark. Despite the price hikes, UC schools stand out for their relatively low average debt and impressively high six-year graduation rates. Out-of-staters who can afford to pay UC's private-school prices will find opportunity in California's crisis: UC schools have opened the doors wide to nonresidents, the better to collect that out-of-state tuition premium (see our Paying for College special report for tips on covering the tuition bill).

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