These schools offer top-notch academics at affordable prices. By Jane Bennett Clark, Senior Editor January 31, 2007 Students pause in respectful silence as the sun melts into the horizon, transforming Sarasota Bay into a shimmering mass of pink and periwinkle-blue ribbons. The spectacle is one of the best perks at New College of Florida, a tiny public institution that abuts the bay. No lecture, however erudite, can beat nature's majesty.Over the past five years, conditions haven't always been so rosy. Cuts in state funding, combined with rising costs for construction, utilities and employee benefits, have forced up tuition and fees at four-year public institutions by 35% since 2001, reports the College Board. Meanwhile, record-setting enrollments and greater demands on Medicaid and other state-funded services suggest that new storms may be brewing. But the immediate future looks bright, says the College Board's Sandy Baum. With a stronger economy and rebounding state appropriations, "the real crunch in public-college costs that existed for a couple of years has let up," says Baum. "Increases in tuition and fees are lower." RELATED LINKS The Kiplinger 100 Best Values Forum Early Birds Grab the Financial Aid 529 Plans State by State Indeed, this year's increase of 6.3% amounts to just $344, which bumps the average annual tab for tuition and fees at a four-year public school to $5,836, and the yearly total, including room and board, to $12,796. That's less than half the cost of a private-school education, which averages $30,367 a year. Advertisement In Kiplinger's exclusive rankings, we give you the top 100 public schools that, in our judgment, combine outstanding value with a first-class education. SEE THE 100 BEST VALUES IN PUBLIC COLLEGES. For instance, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, number one in our rankings for the sixth straight time, Tar Heel students pay $13,584 or less and get small classes, a top-notch faculty and a supportive environment that enables 84% of students to earn a degree within six years. That winning formula attracts top students from both in and out of state. Says chancellor James Moeser, "Our overall excellence is driving it -- and a national basketball championship in 2005 didn't hurt." Financial aid When you add in financial aid and tax benefits, a public-school education looks even better. An in-state student with average aid pays only $2,799 a year in tuition and fees -- about the price of a 50-inch plasma TV. And the total annual bill is just $10,000. For many in-state students, the concept of paying any tuition at all is as quaint as, say, using a land-line telephone. Almost half the states offer some type of merit aid to high-achieving residents. "They want to improve the quality of their institutions and keep those students in state," says Baum. Florida's Bright Futures program pays up to 100% of tuition for Florida residents who meet the academic criteria. At the University of Georgia, virtually all in-state students receive a merit-based HOPE scholarship, which covers tuition and fees. Erin Dunn of Tavernier, Fla., had her heart set on studying out of state, but her parents ruled otherwise. "They wouldn't let me pass up the Bright Futures scholarship," says Dunn. Now thriving as a senior at the University of Florida, "I can't even tell you how much tuition is," Dunn says. Advertisement Some educators question the policy of putting merit scholarships on par with (or ahead of) need-based assistance. At UNC-Chapel Hill, which meets 100% of costs for freshmen whose families qualify, "we have never shifted funds from need- to merit-based scholarships," says Moeser. That said, "we're aggressively building our arsenal of merit-based scholarships to be more competitive." The rankings Dunn didn't sacrifice quality in attending UF. Her soon-to-be alma mater ranks second on our 2007 honor roll of public colleges, thanks to the caliber of the student body as well as a show-stopping yearly tuition -- $3,206 -- that represents one of the lowest sticker prices in the nation. Most in-state students qualify for the Bright Futures award. As for other states, residents of Mr. Jefferson's commonwealth can consider themselves twice blessed. Both the College of William and Mary (number three on our list) and the University of Virginia (number four) draw top students who return in large numbers after freshman year and post impressive four- and six-year graduation rates. Both schools offer generous aid to in-state applicants with need. Also check out Binghamton University (SUNY) and SUNY Geneseo. Both New York State schools top our rankings for offering high-quality education to out-of-state residents at a relatively low total cost -- about $21,000 annually. The average financial-aid package cuts that amount by several thousand dollars. Advertisement Compared with last year's rankings, some institutions leapfrogged into the top 20 and others dropped to lower positions. For instance, Georgia Institute of Technology moved up 17 places, to number 13, by improving retention and graduation rates and beefing up financial aid. The University of Illinois fell 22 places by raising tuition and cutting need-based aid in half. The University of Wisconsin-Madison also slashed need-based aid and dropped from number 15 to number 25. Regardless of their rank, the institutions on our list represent an amazing diversity of size, style and opportunity -- even within a single state. To see just how enticing the choices can be, compare the New College of Florida (number six) and the University of Florida (number two). See the 100 best values in public colleges. Personal touch In a modest classroom on the bay side of campus, Mike Michalson walks his students through the philosophical conundrums posed by Martin Buber's I and Thou. A student asks: "Can you love a tree, according to Buber?" Michalson smiles. "Sure. Just try cutting one down to build a new dorm. Then you'll find out how many people love trees." Michalson, who also happens to be New College's president, represents a rarity among college administrators. "I teach freshmen every year, to make sure they get acquainted with the president and I with them." He has little problem putting names to faces: Only 761 students attend this four-year honors school. New College of Florida stakes its reputation on individual study, independent research and intense collaboration with teachers; class size can dip as low as five. Advertisement For Ravi Banerjee of Darien, Conn., those qualities have allowed him to pursue his passion for studying rain forests. When he was a freshman, he went on a weeklong expedition to Peru. Last summer, he traveled on a Smithsonian Institution project to Panama, where he taught tree-climbing -- a skill he learned while researching the rain-forest canopy. But perhaps Banerjee's most exciting adventure occurred at last fall's annual banquet of the New York Explorers Club, of which he is a student member. To the delight of onlooking guests, Banerjee and another student rappelled from the ceiling of a Manhattan restaurant. When they hit the floor, says Banerjee, "waitresses were waiting with our drinks and tux jackets." As a Connecticut resident, he pays about $27,000 a year for the privilege of climbing trees and descending from ceilings. That's pricey compared with in-state costs at New College -- which total $11,097 -- but a bargain compared with Brown University, the other school Banerjee was considering. At Brown, total costs approach $44,000 annually. Banerjee knows he made the right choice in attending this quirky school, which boasts a giant chess board, an Ultimate Frisbee team and a knitting club that calls itself the Anarchy Death Sticks. "I meet at least once a week with my advisor. I have lunch with my professor once a month. New College is exactly what I was looking for." Big business Three hours north at the state's flagship university, in Gainesville, Fla., the atmosphere could hardly be more different. Think big: Big campus. Big buildings. Big-name football team in a stadium that holds 90,000 screaming fans. The University of Florida also includes many of Florida's highest-achieving students, the nation's fourth-largest student body and some of the world's top research facilities. President Bernie Machen hopes to secure UF's spot in the uppermost tier of public institutions by lowering class size and improving graduation rates. "We have a serious shortfall in our ability to hire faculty and academic advisors," says Machen. He recently proposed charging incoming students an extra $500 per semester to fund new hires. Meanwhile, students such as David Byer of Ewing, N.J., enjoy academia on a large scale. Byer, who's studying telecommunications, says he has gotten "tons of hands-on experience that helped me get an internship at Sony TV in California. The opportunities here are just immeasurable." As for Dunn, she loves everything about Gator Nation, including the performing arts, the football and basketball teams, and the natural beauty of the campus, which includes a lake and a wildlife preserve. "The university has a great reputation that's getting better," she says. "And you can't beat a free education. It would be stupid to pass that up." Beyond the 100 Our rankings focus on traditional four-year schools with broad-based curriculums. As a result, schools that offer great value but focus on special or narrow academic programs are excluded. For example, the military and service academies -- Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine and Navy -- all rank near the top of our list for academic quality. They charge no tuition and pay students to attend. But applicants to the federal academies generally must obtain congressional or military nominations and serve in the armed forces after graduation. Cornell University, best known as a member of the Ivy League, is another exception. Four of Cornell's colleges -- Architecture, Arts & Sciences, Engineering and Hotel Administration -- are part of the privately endowed university, which we consider a private institution. But three of Cornell's undergraduate colleges are land-grant state schools that charge a much lower tuition. New York State residents who are students in the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Ecology, and Industrial and Labor Relations pay about $18,000 a year for tuition and fees. SEE THE 100 BEST VALUES IN PUBLIC COLLEGES -- Melissa Steeley helped compile the data for this special report.