America's 10 Best College Buys Not all are public -- some aren't even cheap -- but they give good educational value.
(MONEY Magazine) – The marketplace for higher education, like securities markets, has pockets of opportunity: schools that, like undervalued stocks, are worth more than you have to pay for them. This fact was verified by an exclusive MONEY computer analysis of the costs and academic characteristics of 1,000 U.S. colleges. Our study not only confirmed the existence of such education bargains but identified them. On this and the following five pages, we profile the 10 colleges that emerged as best values (a ranking of the top 200 appears on page 73; an explanation of the methods we used in our search is on page 72). While stocks tend to be undervalued because they are overlooked by investors or are in unpopular industries, the high-ranking schools can be good deals because their tuitions are kept low by state subsidies (we based our rankings on tuitions charged to out-of-state students) or, if they are private, generous endowments. Most of the top 10 are on the Eastern Seaboard. But beyond that they are an interesting mix: rural and urban, tiny and gargantuan, liberal arts and specialized, intense and laid back. And not all of the schools that made our list are inexpensive. As the case of Caltech demonstrates, it is possible for a college to provide such an outstanding education that it is a good buy even at an above-average price. Here are the 10 winners, in rank order:
1. COOPER UNION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE AND ART
Peter Cooper, an immigrant's son who rose to become a real estate and insurance magnate, founded Cooper Union (above) in New York City in 1859 to provide a tuition-free education for all qualified applicants regardless of need. In keeping with that goal, today the school charges its 1,000 students only a yearly $300 activities fee. The rest of the $15,000 CU spends annually to educate each student comes from its $100 million endowment and contributions. The low price is somewhat deceptive, though: CU has only one residence hall (it plans to add a second soon), which houses 80 students at a cost of $375 a month without meals. Other local accommodations run higher -- two students might share a studio or one-bedroom apartment that rents for $900 or $1,000 a month in a nearby high-rise -- which helps explain why about 70% of the students live at home. And Cooper Union provides a fairly restricted course of study, offering bachelor's degrees in only three disciplines: art, architecture and engineering. Students must take at least two humanities or social science electives each year, however. Career-mindedness and dedication to work, work, work unite the student body. ''If anything, our students need to lighten up,'' says an administrator. Since CU's three-building campus has no athletic facilities or student union, denizens seeking diversion turn to the galleries, clubs, ethnic restaurants and antique clothing shops in the school's East Village neighborhood.
2. CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
Caltech, in Pasadena, ranks as an excellent value despite -- not because of -- its price. Tuition is $13,495; room and board run another $4,261. But consider the credentials: over the years, faculty and alumni have won 21 Nobel Prizes, and there are currently four Nobelists in residence; a high percentage of undergrads -- 39% -- later earn doctorates in the sciences; there is a teaching faculty of 274 for 799 undergraduate students plus a huge research faculty of 377; and the school garnered more than $1 billion in government contracts and grants last year, allowing it to provide numerous hands-on research opportunities to its undergraduates. There's just one catch -- you'll probably need to be a science superstar to get in. Many Caltechers score perfect 800s on their math SATs. Elsewhere, they'd be considered nerds because they relish the 50-hour-and-up workweeks required to complete intensive team projects and carry demanding course loads. The latter include heavy doses of calculus, physics and chemistry; about a fifth of each student's classes must be in the humanities or social sciences. Yet even these hard workers, most of whom spend four years living in one of seven campus residence halls, do find ways to ''ditch,'' or avoid work. While some excess energy is spent wholesomely in intramural athletics, most is devoted to the school's famous -- or rather infamous -- pranks. In 1986, for example, students reconfigured the famous Hollywood sign to read Caltech on the morning of the movie center's 100th-anniversary celebration.
3. RICE UNIVERSITY
Four miles from the chrome and concrete skyscrapers of downtown Houston, Rice University sits on a 300-acre oak-covered campus (there's a tree for every one of the 4,000 Fstudents) that would be at home in the most bucolic New England village. And Rice's academic reputation is as Ivy League as its looks. The school's Texas-size $1 billion endowment, however, allows it to keep tuition at a low $7,160 (plus room and board of $4,600). Moreover, it provided a generous $13.1 million in fellowships, scholarships and university loans to its students last year. Until 1963, Rice accepted only white students, mostly from Texas, but these days 18% of the undergrads are members of minority groups (compared with a national average of 15% for private colleges) and 52% come from out of state. Applicants (5,240 last year) for the sought-after 570 freshmen slots must be sharp. About 75% have SAT scores of 1250 or better, and the application (''List three adjectives that best describe you'' is one question) is designed to weed out all but the most highly motivated and creative. Rice's traditional strengths lie in engineering and science, but half the students now major in the arts, social sciences and humanities. Though Rice faculty members received about $30 million last year for research projects, all must teach, and most are user-friendly. ''They give out their home phone numbers,'' says a business major. All students are assigned at random to live in one of the school's eight coed residential colleges.
4. THE NEW COLLEGE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA
The New College opened in Sarasota in 1964 as a private institution offering an exacting liberal arts curriculum. By 1974, however, it was barely holding its own financially, and a year later it became part of the University of South Florida, which had been seeking a branch campus in the area to add to its main one in Tampa. Thanks to the merger, New College combines the best of two worlds: a strong academic program on a par with selective private colleges; plus low, state-subsidized tuition bills of $1,515 for Floridians and $5,488 for out-of-state students. Out-of-staters account for about half the student body of 510. New College makes its home in two old mansions -- one Spanish colonial, one Georgian -- that circus mogul Charles Ringling built on Sarasota Bay. But young people who hope to spend four years clowning around in the sun and sand should look elsewhere: the atmosphere is intensely intellectual. Students, with the aid of faculty advisers, design their own programs -- and sometimes even their own courses. Because the school is small, there are only two or three professors in each discipline. All, however, have enough distinguished degrees to satisfy the most demanding diploma snob. Novocollegians, 60% of whom live on campus in apartments designed by I.M. Pei, unwind at ''walls'' -- parties that sprout from soulful conversations at a balustrade alongside Palm Court, an open space surrounded by the residence halls.
5. STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK-GENESEO
The State University of New York (SUNY) system has 64 campuses, but savvy guidance counselors across the state direct some of their best students to lesser-known Geneseo (tuition: $1,575 for New Yorkers; $4,925 for others), a liberal arts college of 5,000 near Finger Lake wine country, 30 miles south of Rochester. Indeed, this year the school had 8,043 applications for its 1,135 freshmen spots. What's the story? Well, unlike the bigger SUNY institutions, Geneseo devotes itself to undergraduate teaching. There are only 430 graduate students, and all professors instruct freshmen. What's more, the teachers are accessible; many live within blocks of the campus in tiny Geneseo, a picturesque town whose entire main street has been declared an historic landmark. Some introductory freshmen courses have as many as 300 students, but 30 is a more typical class size. Although Geneseo has professional courses in accounting, business, education, speech pathology and audiology, most students choose a classic liberal arts program. And all get the classic college experience -- a residential campus, Collegiate Gothic brick buildings and close friendships that usually start in dormitory dining halls or at the Club, the campus hangout that draws New York City performers. The student body is mostly middle class, mostly white and mostly from New York State, but college president Carol C. Harter says she wants to attract more minorities. ''Students say that they want more people of different backgrounds,'' she explains, ''so that's a goal.''
6. STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BINGHAMTON
The headline of the booklet SUNY Binghamton sends to prospective students proclaims that the school, which became one of the state's four flagship university centers in 1965, is Genus Varium Hederae -- ''A Different Breed of Ivy.'' While the ultramodern buildings on the 600-acre campus in hilly southwestern New York have none of the green stuff creeping up their walls, the school can certainly make the case that it has all the advantages of leafy liberal arts schools. It offers close relationships with faculty, research opportunities, small classes (most enroll fewer than 30 students) and gonzo libraries and labs -- all for a decidedly non-Ivy League price of $1,564 for New Yorkers, $4,914 for others. The university is eager to increase its proportion of out-of-state students from the current 8%. But no one will find it easy to get in. Binghamton accepts fewer than half its applicants (75% have a high school average of A- or better), and the school is heavily peopled with first-generation strivers from New York City and its suburbs. About two-thirds of the undergraduates enroll in Harpur College, which offers a traditional liberal arts curriculum; there are also several professional schools. Grade-grubbing is the campus pastime; at night, the school's four libraries are packed, and lab lights shine brightly even on weekends. Students also burn the midnight bulbs at three computer centers -- the ''Pods'' -- and at terminals in residence halls and libraries. Even so, to be successful at Binghamton, one administrator says, ''you must have an independent spirit and be willing to speak out'' -- that is, mindless workhorses not wanted.
7. TRENTON STATE COLLEGE
Solid is the word that best describes this public college, which is bordered by two lakes in suburban Ewing Township, six miles from the state capital. Trenton State charges out-of-state students only $3,795 (in-staters pay $2,720) and, while it will probably never rival nearby Princeton, for that amount it offers a -- yes -- solid liberal arts education with professional specialization for those who want it. Trenton State has a required core curriculum, and students are prodded to choose a major early on. A few freshman courses may have as many as 100 students, but most classes register only 20 to 30. The school prefers steady achievers over shooting stars. Says one administrator: ''We're more likely to accept a student with good grades and poor SATs than to accept someone with 1300 SATs and a poor academic record.'' Even though 91% of the 5,000 students come from New Jersey (about half live in the dorms), they are a diverse lot, with about 16% belonging to minority groups. The school hopes eventually to have a 20% minority enrollment (the national average for state schools is 19%). Each summer, incoming freshmen are required to read a book that addresses cultural differences (this year's selection: Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and to explore the topic in formal discussions during freshman orientation week.
8. STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT ALBANY
For better and for worse, SUNY-Albany has been heavily influenced by its location in the Empire State's capital city. Take the architecture. The newer uptown campus, where the 11,700 undergraduates spend most of their time, is composed of massive vintage-1960s government-style edifices that are part of an immense quadrangle called the Academic Podium (pictured above). ''You know you're there when everything starts looking the same,'' says the student handbook. (There is also an 81-year-old campus downtown, with traditional red- brick buildings.) On the other hand, some of the university's best programs -- social welfare, public administration, public health and criminal justice -- correspond to the state government's biggest budget expenditures. (Students more inclined to the private sector seek out the highly regarded school of business.) Moreover, each year, hundreds of students take advantage of internships in state agencies, the legislature and political campaigns, learning while earning small stipends that offset the low tuition of $1,485 or $4,835 for out-of- staters. About 97% of the undergraduates hail from New York, and 17% are members of minority groups; like other SUNY branches, Albany hopes to attract more students from beyond the state's borders. Almost all freshmen and sophomores and most upperclassmen live in the four huge residence halls, but most find relief from the bigness by ''podiating'' -- gabbing by the fountain in the Academic Podium.
9. UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
The University of Virginia was designed and founded in Charlottesville by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Were he alive today, Jefferson could argue that the college that charges least teaches best because the University of Virginia provides both breadth and depth in all its course offerings, with a relatively low tuition of $8,136 for students who come from out of state (Virginians pay $2,966). UVA emphasizes the liberal arts, and English and economics have traditionally been the strongest departments, but students bent on early professional training can find it in the McIntire School of Commerce and the schools of architecture and engineering. The university is big, and introductory courses may enroll 400 students, but professors are approachable. ''That comes with the low-key country setting,'' says one recent graduate. ''Teachers are focused on the academic community and aren't diverted as they would be in a large city.'' Despite the rural surroundings, the university has a cosmopolitan air because about 35% of the students are from out of state and many of the Virginia residents come from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The New York Times is available on campus. Though Virginia's reputation as king of the party schools has ebbed somewhat -- students carry heavy five-course loads -- it is still social. Football and * basketball games are free, but never frowzy. While screaming ''Wah-hoo-wah'' to cheer on their teams, UVA fans customarily maintain a southern elegance, wearing jackets and ties or flowery summer dresses to games.
10. THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
When the University of Florida opened its doors in Gainesville in 1906, tuition for out-of-state students was $20 a year. There's been some inflation since then, but UF's current price of $4,630 ($1,320 for state residents) still has to be one of the best education buys around. The school has more academic programs -- 114 majors in 52 disciplines -- on one campus than any other school save the University of Minnesota and Ohio State. Its faculty of 3,400 includes winners of Pulitzer Prizes and NASA research awards. And there are facilities galore -- one of the largest student computer centers in the South, a new art gallery, a natural history museum, Shands Hospital and an on- campus wildlife refuge. Sports are topnotch (though clouded by UF's recent admission that coaches made unethical payments to athletes in violation of NCAA rules). Small wonder that there's stiff competition for the roughly 300 spots that generally go to non-Florida residents -- about 10% of the total in its freshmen class. The only thing that undergraduates may miss is individual attention. Timid freshmen could easily become lost among their 34,000 fellow students (two- thirds of whom must live off-campus), the 800 buildings and in introductory courses that often cram in more than 500 students. To find a social niche, many students join one or two of the hundreds of clubs and support groups or a fraternity or sorority. Good knees should be a requirement for admission because everybody wears shorts to class.