america's 10 best buys college

(MONEY Magazine) – Low price alone doesn't qualify a college as a bargain. To make MONEY's list of America's best buys in higher education, a school must also possess outstanding students, faculty and facilities. On the following pages, we profile the 10 schools that emerged as the best values in our second annual computer analysis of 1,011 four-year colleges. (For an explanation of our methodology -- and why three colleges ranked high in 1990 dropped off this year's list -- see page 64.) Two of the 10 schools are private. The others are public schools that benefit from substantial state subsidies; we base our rankings, however, on tuitions charged to out-of-state students. Our study's lesson: you need not pay top dollar to get top quality in education.

1 RICE UNIVERSITY Texans are not just bragging when they call Rice ''the Harvard of the South.'' The private school has more than fulfilled the aim of its founder in 1891, Massachusetts-born cotton baron William Marsh Rice, who dreamed of bringing to his adopted hometown of Houston a selective Ivy League-quality school open to all students regardless of means. Indeed, until 1965, tuition was zero. Today it is only $7,700 (plus $4,900 for room and board), about half that of most Ivy League schools. Furthermore, Rice provides a generous $13 million a year in scholarships, loans and part-time jobs to help needy students go the distance. What makes this all possible is the university's $1 billion endowment -- about $250,000 for each of its 3,900 students -- the fourth largest per student in the nation. Rice has a faculty member for every nine students, vs. the national average of 1 to 15. All professors are required to teach, and most make time to help undergraduates individually and to participate in campus activities -- performing alongside students, for example, in theatrical productions. The students are a gifted lot; there were 182 National Merit Scholars in Rice's freshman class of 622 last year. Long known for academic rigor in architecture, business, engineering and science, Rice in the past decade or so has beefed up its offerings in the humanities and fine arts. Students live in eight coed residential colleges on a campus of Mediterranean-style buildings made of Italian marble and Texas granite, surrounded by thousands of live oaks, crape myrtles and magnolias.

2 THE NEW COLLEGE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA Why is the New College like a flamingo? It too is an odd bird found in Florida. Begun in 1960 by Sarasota civic leaders as a small, private liberal arts college devoted to excellence, it ran out of money in 1974 and joined the University of South Florida, a public system. New College's 500 students thus pay low state tuition rates -- currently $1,675 for Florida residents and $6,690 for all others -- while a private foundation provides extra support from individual and corporate donors to help keep the school's student/faculty ratio at a favorable 10 to 1. The college makes its home in a cluster of buildings on the old Ringling family estate on the shore of balmy Sarasota Bay, but its academic program is no day at the beach. True, there are no core requirements or grades. But students must complete rigorous academic programs that they design hand in hand with faculty members -- and which may include tutorials, labs, apprenticeships, fieldwork and internships. New Collegians won't survive unless they exhibit high intellectual purpose and tremendous self-discipline, so applicants should expect to be able to jump through more hoops than a Ringling Bros. lion. The average SAT score is 1,296, and those in the top quarter of last year's freshman class had grade point averages of 3.9 or better. Most New College students are individualistic but friendly. Remarks a recent graduate: ''New College is a place where you can play your own music and wear your own clothes and still find people willing to spend time with you.''

3 TRENTON STATE COLLEGE With surprising regularity, this seemingly nondescript school of 5,000 pops up on MONEY's and other lists of top educational values. What makes Trenton State shine? Well, its rolling green campus bordered by two lakes six miles from New Jersey's grungy capital fulfills movie-set visions of how a college should look. More to the point, however, are its unusually close student-faculty relations. A few introductory classes may number as many as 75 students, but most are half that size or smaller. And all classes are taught by full-time faculty members; there are no teaching assistants, and students say that it is easy to get attention from instructors. Recalls a recent graduate: ''I was studying for a lab test one Friday night, and my professor spent two hours with me one-on-one in the lab. I felt that I wasn't just a number.'' Yet tuition is low -- $3,079 for residents and $4,750 for nonresidents. TSC tries to promote racial harmony with its nationally recognized orientation program. Still, the student body -- 14% minority and 60% female -- suffers some tense moments. This year, for example, a candidate for the presidency of the student government withdrew after making a racist joke. Once upon a time, TSC was known as the Suitcase College because almost all students left for home on the weekends. Now about half stick around for intramural and Division III varsity sports, concerts, movies and lectures, though most complain that there is absolutely nothing to do in Trenton.

4 UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA UVA's reputation as a party school for spoiled rich boys began fading in 1970 when the university first admitted women. Although no longer so redolent of southern sour mash, UVA, located among the lush estates of Albemarle County about 120 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., is still steeped in romance and tradition. Thomas Jefferson founded the school in 1819 for a first class of 62 students who were ''to follow truth wherever it may lead.'' He also designed the stunningly beautiful central campus. Though the Grounds, as UVA students call their campus, have spread many acres to the west since Jefferson's time, the university has retained some of its original intimacy by holding enrollment to about 18,000 -- small compared with that of other state flagship schools. And unlike many of the others, UVA is not required to accept a specified number of in-state students, leaving it free to pick and choose from the best of the 18,000 applicants for nearly 3,000 freshman and transfer openings each year. What attracts many students is UVA's unwavering emphasis on the liberal arts, even for those on preprofessional tracks in, say, architecture or engineering. UVA's full-time teaching faculty numbers a generous 1,600. Although the 60 fraternities and sororities reign over weekend doings (which usually begin Thursday night), students must keep their partying under control if they plan to attain a UVA diploma. With few exceptions, UVA demands that undergrads get their degrees within four years or leave.

5 UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN The midwestern work ethic is as firmly rooted in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the fresh-cut grass on its sprawling 700-acre campus 140 miles south of Chicago. Prospective students apply directly to one of the university's eight undergraduate colleges -- agriculture, applied life studies, commerce and business administration, communications, education, engineering, fine and applied arts, and liberal arts and sciences. Thanks to the administration's careful planning, the 26,400 undergraduates are rarely crowded out of required courses, unlike students at other large public universities with comparably low tuitions -- UI's is $2,236 for residents and $5,988 for nonresidents. Most students are solid achievers from Illinois (94%). Indeed, the student body is so homogeneously fresh-faced and midwestern that school officials say they would welcome more applications from either coast. Among UI's star-quality facilities is its heavily frequented library. Built underground to avoid casting shadows on the nearby Morrow Plots, the nation's oldest experimental agricultural field, the 7.7-million- volume library ranks third in size behind Harvard's and Yale's. The ultramodern Krannert Center for the Performing Arts contains five performance spaces, ranging in size from a cabaret to a concert auditorium. UI students participate in 700 clubs and organizations, including the Sherlock Holmes Society and the Accounting Club, as well as 27 sororities and 55 fraternities -- the largest Greek system outside Greece.

6 CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY How does a private school with tuition of $14,100 a year qualify as a best value? By attracting a high-powered student body and faculty and giving them topnotch facilities on a 124-acre campus in Pasadena. A basic admission requirement at Caltech is a brain as big as one of Jupiter's larger moons. The mean combined SAT score is 1,410, and many successful applicants score perfect 800s on the math section. A third of Caltech's 800 undergraduates go on to earn doctorates in the sciences, and over the years, 20 Caltechers -- both % faculty and graduates -- have won Nobel Prizes. Until recently, the typical student was a white, male nerd, although in the past three years, Caltech has seen its female enrollment double to 25% of its student body. Furthermore, the school strives to recruit qualified minority students (now 28% of the total). Though students are required to take courses in humanities and social sciences -- and can even major in them -- Caltech's focus has not changed since its founding in 1891. As one upperclassman comments, ''Most students believe that science and math are what smart people do.'' The school emphasizes working in teams, and many students labor 16 hours a day in the disorder of Caltech's seven residential houses. Even so, students can be inventive when having fun; this year, to commemorate the school's centennial, they concocted a Rose Bowl Parade float -- an elaborate Rube Goldberg-style contraption that repeatedly conked a statue of Isaac Newton on the head with an apple.

7 STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BINGHAMTON So far, New York's university system, which was thrown together from a batch of teachers and professional colleges in 1948, has no flagship school. But if one were to be designated, the logical choice would be SUNY Binghamton, because it attracts the brightest and the best from the state's most competitive high schools. Fully 71% are in the top tenth of their classes, and the median SAT score is 1,144. Indeed, more than a few willingly pass up Harvard, Yale and other $20,000-a-year Ivy League status-versities for SUNY Binghamton and its startlingly low tuition: $2,150 for residents and $5,750 for out-of-staters, plus $4,214 for room and board. For those modest outlays, students get a bundle of academic advantages: 536 full-time faculty members, enough to keep the average class size to about 30 students; a 1.4-million- volume library; highly respected business and engineering schools; and opportunities to work with professors on research projects. Half of the 9,150 undergrads live on the school's heavily wooded, steeply hilled campus, most of them in one of five residences designed to integrate academic and social life. A faculty master maintains an office in each residence to provide advice to students and to arrange visits from professors who may lecture or merely dine and socialize. SUNY Binghamton students do let go from time to time -- for example, in spirited games of the coed, intramural football known as ''co- rec'' and mock monster hunts at nearby Lake Lieberman.

8 UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON Among the University of Washington's strengths are a top engineering school that sends a quarter of each year's graduating class to Boeing (its headquarters are near the Seattle campus), strong programs in medicine and health sciences, and one of the nation's few undergraduate degrees in oceanography. Indeed, perhaps because the school emphasizes basic sciences, it ranks first among public universities and fourth among all institutions of higher education as a recipient of federal research and training grant money -- about $288 million in 1990. And that does not include free use of the Thomas G. Thompson, a 274-foot research ship owned by the Navy. Despite the lavish research money, the university does not neglect its 24,600 undergraduates, who, for a yearly tuition of $2,178 (or $6,075 for nonresidents), enjoy classes that usually number no more than 55 for freshmen and 18 for upperclassmen. For state residents, admission standards are not tough; in 1991, a grade point average of 3.15 and SAT scores of 950 did the trick. Nonresidents must have grade point averages of 3.8 and board scores of 950. The athletically inclined find it easy to plunge into the outdoorsy life of the Pacific Northwest. But for outsiders, getting into the social swim can be as difficult as sighting Mount Rainier on one of Seattle's many drizzly days. Nearly 90% of the students come from the Puget Sound area, and about 70% commute either from home or nearby apartments. Not surprisingly, the campus is often deserted come Friday.

9 UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL On a hilltop in the rolling Piedmont perch the charming antebellum buildings, wide lawns and giant ivied oaks of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation's oldest state college (it enrolled its first student in 1795). The campus is surrounded by bars and churches, and both are packed with students at the appropriate times -- the former after (usually losing) football and (often winning) basketball games and the latter amid crushing hangovers on Sunday mornings. In between those weekend rituals, students benefit from a faculty of world-class scholars and in classes that, above the introductory level, usually number no more than 35. Among the more distinguished departments are chemistry, economics, English, journalism and political science. Despite recent hikes, tuition is still a bargain: $764 a year for residents and $6,580 for out-of-staters. Unfortunately, faculty- student relations are generally not close; students say that many professors are more interested in research than in teaching. In fact, most professors are required to give only two courses -- rather than the three generally demanded at similar schools. By law, UNC must give 82% of its freshman spots to state residents, and 65% of all North Carolinians who apply are accepted. The university also gives preference to the children of nonresident alumni and to top-rank athletes or gifted artists from anywhere. Only 14% of other out-of-state applicants are accepted, and many have SAT scores of 1,300 or higher.

10 THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN When the University of Texas at Austin opened its doors in 1883, it had one building, eight teachers, two departments, 221 students, and a herd of cows freely grazing on its 40-acre campus. Now the cows are fenced in, and UT has grown to mega-versity size -- 357 acres crammed with 119 buildings, more than 49,000 students (about 37,000 undergraduates), 2,400 professors, a batch of successful Long Horn teams and an attitude that could be described as either spirited or arrogant. Of course, the university has enough breadth and depth to make anybody proud: 53 departments, 285 degree programs and 6,600 courses. It all comes for a hardscrabble tuition: $600 for Texas residents and $3,840 for out-of-staters. UT will accept any Texas applicant graduating in the top 10% of his high school class but, to be assured of admission, non-Texans (18.6% of the student body) should be in the top quarter of their classes and score 1,100 or better on their SATs. UT's bigness has some drawbacks. As many as 500 people crowd into introductory classes, and some students who are shut out of required courses may be forced to stick around for five or six years to complete their degrees. To ease the strain, the school has hired about 130 professors over the past two years. For off-campus amusement, students can visit Austin's legendary Sixth Street music scene, where clubs offer cheap beer and rich sounds that range from bluegrass to heavy metal.


Cooper Union, MONEY's 1990 choice as America's best college buy, remains an unbeatable bargain. Founded by Manhattan inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper in 1859, it charges its 1,030 students no tuition -- just a yearly $300 activities fee. Unlike the schools in this year's MONEY Top 10, however, CU grants degrees in only three specialties: art, architecture and engineering.