Inside the Top 10 A close look at the schools that offer the best deals reveals an array of academic and social styles.
By Lani Luciano

(MONEY Magazine) – Our 10 top college values have one thing in common: All of them are bargains when compared with schools of similar quality. Beyond that, they are extraordinarily different, so when you choose among them you will face a wealth of options. Would your child be better off at a small college or a big one? Are you looking for a highly structured school or one that encourages independence? Do you want a terrific college that features specialized education in, say, engineering, or one that provides broad-based learning? Whatever your needs, you're likely to find a school that fits them among our top 10. So start your college search here.

1. New College of the University of South Florida The fact that tuition at New College didn't rise a penny for the 1994-95 academic year helped it repeat as our No. 1 school. Tuition and fees cost Floridians a mere $2,030 a year. Nonresidents, who make up nearly half the school's 536 students, pay just $7,943. Room and board are $3,717. Private until financial problems forced a merger with the public South Florida system in 1975, New College maintains the same lofty educational standards that led Sarasota civic leaders to found it 30 years ago. Its students are academically gifted, with average high school grade point averages (GPAs) of 3.81 and average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of 1,200. They enjoy a 10-to-1 student/faculty ratio -- approximately half that of most state schools and substantially better than the 16-to-1 average in our survey. And some classes have fewer than 10 students. When senior psychobiology major Alana McHorris (in the photograph at left) asked for a neurobiology course in the spring of 1994, for example, the college created one just for her; four other students subsequently signed up. Education at New College is an unusual blend of personal initiative and faculty mentoring. In keeping with the laid-back atmosphere on the balmy, 140- acre seaside campus, rules and supervision are minimal. Each semester, students draw up individual learning contracts with advisers that spell out the classes, reading and research they plan to complete. Then, instead of grades, faculty and advisers provide detailed evaluations of how well the contracts were met. While New College may be perfect for self-starters, the maturity and self- reliance it requires can be too much for some youngsters. Indeed, for an institution with such high achievers, New College's 60% graduation rate for students who enter as freshmen is just slightly above the 56% average in our survey. Still, people who do earn degrees from New College go on to graduate schools in impressive numbers. More than 39% get advanced degrees, vs. the 27% national average. "We're working hard to keep the students we start with," says admissions director David Anderson. For example, to help weed out poor fits in advance, the school's viewbook lists 15 statements prospective students should ponder before applying. (Sample: "I am able to keep schedules I set myself.") And the school recently hired its first student life coordinator to help kids get more out of campus activities.

2. Rice University For its first 54 years, Rice charged no tuition, in line with founder William Marsh Rice's vision of a free, Harvard-quality education for young Texans. Alas, despite the cotton baron's provision of a phenomenal endowment, now worth $1.25 billion -- ninth largest in the U.S. -- Rice's no-tuition policy ended in 1964. In fact, the school's 9.4% tuition hike for 1993-94 nudged the price of a Rice degree above the national average for the first time; for 1994-95, the trustees raised tuition and fees for freshmen 11.7% more to $10,775. However, new president Malcolm Gillis has guaranteed that starting in the fall of 1994, each incoming class' annual tuition bill won't climb any faster than the consumer price index, or roughly 3% to 5% annually through the end of the century. Even at a total cost of $16,500 (tuition, room, board and fees), Rice is still a terrific deal, especially since 80% of its students receive financial aid averaging nearly half their costs, vs. 69% at the typical four-year college. Thanks to a super-low student/faculty ratio of 9 to 1, few classes have more than 30 students. Fully 86% of each year's 600 freshmen (from an applicant pool of nearly 8,000) come from the top 10% of their high school classes, and 75% score 1,250 or better on the SATs. Ninety-five percent return for sophomore year, and 88% graduate within six years. Despite Rice's location in fast-paced Houston, the 300-acre campus is a tranquil preserve of Mediterranean-style buildings amid live oak trees, crepe myrtles and magnolias. Social or political protest is virtually unknown. "Individual thinking and learning is not stressed, and current affairs aren't much discussed," complains Alicia Powers, 20, a junior majoring in cognitive science and statistics. Surprisingly for a state with Mexican roots, Rice comes up short on cultural diversity. Sixty-nine percent of students are white, 13% are Asian and only 9% are Hispanic, compared with 16% for the nearby University of Houston. As a result, a top priority for the new associate provost, to be hired in December, will be to boost minority enrollment.

3. Trenton State College Set on 250 wooded acres between two central New Jersey lakes, Trenton State's ivied, Georgian-style campus has an upper-crust feel, but it comes at a commoner's price. Tuition and fees are only $6,287 for out-of-staters (9% of the student body) and $4,012 for New Jersey residents. Room and board cost $5,400. For those bargain prices, TSC's 5,165 undergrads get a student/faculty ratio of 15 to 1 and relatively small classes, typically with fewer than 35 students. All are taught by professors, never graduate students. In 1993-94, TSC completely revised the core curriculum of classes that every student is required to take. For example, each graduate must now complete at least one course focusing on non-Western, Native-American or third world culture. In addition, as part of a pilot program for freshmen, some seminars on topics ranging from literature to logic are now held in the residence halls rather than classrooms. "We want to reinforce the fact that all aspects of students' lives offer opportunities to learn," explains Sue Baldwin-Way, director of college relations. Not surprisingly, 92% of freshmen -- a whopping 90% of them from the top 20% of their high school classes -- return to Trenton State as sophomores, and 75% graduate within six years. Besides enviable opportunities for scholarship, TSC offers a remarkable athletic program with 21 varsity programs. The school has won 24 national championships since 1979, most recently in 1994 when its women's lacrosse squad finished first in Division III for the fourth straight season. In addition, TSC boasts more than 140 special-interest activities, from broadcasting on campus radio station WTSR to participating in the Feast of the Golden Lion, a medieval-style pageant. While students from different backgrounds co-exist peacefully at TSC, which has a 16% minority population, the school faced a racially charged moment last February. A sizable number of faculty and students objected to a scheduled speech by Khalid Muhammad, a disciple of Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader, shortly after Muhammad made headlines denouncing Jews in a harangue at nearby Kean College. While repudiating Muhammad's views, the TSC administration refused to revoke his invitation, provoking student campus demonstrations but no lasting ill will.

4. State University of New York at Binghamton Last summer, SUNY-Binghamton launched its "Fresh Start" program, which allowed up to 150 incoming freshmen to earn as many as eight credits by taking courses before the fall semester even started. ; Indeed, that kind of imaginative academic approach, which helps make up for Binghamton's fairly high 19-to-1 student/ faculty ratio, has long appealed to strivers. The university offers 14 combined degree programs that allow students to take courses at any of Binghamton's five colleges, including its outstanding management and engineering schools, as well as at eight outside colleges. For 1994-95, Binghamton has completely revamped its curriculum so that all students will have to pass seven courses in six comprehensive areas, including science, math and what the school calls "global vision" -- courses that teach various cultures' perspectives on social structure, ideology, economics or literature. To accommodate heavy student demand, the library, labs and computer centers are open past midnight. Binghamton's emphasis on education attracts an unusually large number of academically strong freshmen to the 600-acre campus 200 miles northwest of New York City. More than 92% are from the top fifth of high school classes (average SATs: 1,148). New Yorkers make up 93% of the 8,544 students, largely because of Binghamton's low tuition and fees for in-staters ($3,060, vs. $6,861 for out-of-staters) and modest room-and-board charges of $4,598. Minorities account for a sturdy 29%. Besides overseas study programs in eight countries, including China and Morocco, the school is gaining notice for its unusual option called Languages Across the Curriculum, known as LxC. In 12 courses, including business management and accounting, students can study from textbooks or other materials in any of nine foreign languages. The point is to develop the students' linguistic and cultural skills so that they can succeed in the increasingly global economy.

5. Northeast Missouri State Once a minor regional teacher's college, Northeast Missouri State set out in 1985 to recruit better teachers and place heavier emphasis on science and the humanities. Today, as the state's premier liberal arts institution, NMSU attracts four times more applicants than it can enroll. And NMSU's 1,400 freshmen have average GPAs of 3.5 and ACTs of 26, vs. the Money survey average of 2.9 and 20.7, respectively. Moreover, a NMSU education is bargain priced -- Missourians (67% of the 5,640 students) pay $6,138, including room and board, out-of-staters, $8,290. Ninety-five percent of freshman classes are taught by full-time professors. Teachers gain tenure primarily by teaching well, and prospective faculty members must give a sample lecture to students, who then grade their performance. (About one-third of applicants flunk out at this point.) A stunning 40% of graduates go on to earn advanced degrees, up from only 16% in 1989, when NMSU was still mostly turning out business and education majors. Another 47% get jobs in their fields within six months of graduation, thanks to job fairs, alumni networking and career planning seminars sponsored by the college placement office. Despite its glowing reputation, however, NMSU doesn't produce as many graduates as it should. Only 58% of its freshmen stay on to earn degrees within five years, barely above the survey average. One reason may be the college's location in sleepy Kirksville, a farm town 170 miles northwest of St. Louis that has no shopping mall, one movie theater and a handful of fast- food restaurants. To keep students busy and fulfilled, NMSU sponsors 170 special-interest groups, ranging from jazz to computer machinery, and imports entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld, as well as opera, ballet, theater companies and the St. Louis Symphony. The effort often succeeds in unexpected ways. Senior health science major Joe Franklin, 21, changed his mind about transferring to another school after attending a professional theater performance on campus. "The fine arts teacher leading the post-performance discussion knew everyone by name," Franklin says. "That's worth a lot."

6. Hanover College At the opposite extreme from hang-loose New College stands traditional Hanover, a private liberal arts school in rural southeastern Indiana. Unlike most colleges, Hanover has refused to abandon the in loco parentis role that nearly all schools played 30 years ago. The college bans alcohol in residence halls and overnight visits with the opposite sex. Professors take class attendance; more than three cuts in a semester results in a lower grade. Hanover's 1,100 students (average GPAs: 3.2; SATs: 1,060) must take 16 required courses, including philosophy, theology and four semesters of a foreign language. A visit by Cheers star Woody Harrelson, a graduate of Hanover in 1983, was regarded as a major event in the spring of 1994. For more excitement than that, students must cross the Kentucky border to Louisville, 45 miles away. Hanover delivers a solid education at below-market prices, thanks largely to a $100 million dollar endowment, equal to $90,900 per student (in the top 10% of U.S. colleges). Tuition, room and board are just $11,995, about $4,600 less than the private school average in our survey. As a result, the college annually receives 1,100 applications for its 360-student freshman class. The student/faculty ratio is a comfortable 13 to 1, and the average class size is 18. The school year consists of two 13-week fall and winter semesters covering four subjects and one four-week spring semester during which students concentrate on a single topic, sometimes traveling abroad. In 1995, for example, a course called "Physics and Metaphysics" will be taught in Greece by a physics professor and a classics professor so students can study the origins and interactions of those disciplines. Seventy-percent of Hanover's faculty live on campus, and dinner at a professor's home is a regular part of campus life. However, lack of diversity is a problem. Only 5% of the students are minorities, chiefly because 65% of the undergrads come from the surrounding area, which is overwhelmingly white.

7. Rutgers-New Brunswick The jewel of New Jersey's three-campus university system, Rutgers-New Brunswick offers nearly 100 academic programs, from plant science to Slavic studies, to 19,415 students (average GPAs: 3.0; SATs: 1,145). The 2,690-acre complex is home to four liberal arts colleges --University, Douglass, Livingston and Rutgers -- and five professional schools. Altogether they spend a hefty $7,181 per student for instruction, more than 30% above the national average. Actually, while Rutgers dates from 1766, its emphasis on academic quality started in the 1980s, when governor Thomas Kean, now president of private Drew University, persuaded the state legislature to spend more money on higher education -- up 65% by the time he left office in 1990. Faculty members now include winners of a National Medal of Science, a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "genius" grant. Rutgers' 16-to-1 student/faculty ratio is among the best of any state university. Alas, tuition and fees have soared along with Rutgers' academic excellence, nearly tripling since the early '80s to $4,643 for New Jersey residents, who make up 90% of the student body, and $8,617 for out-of-staters. About 60% of Rutgers students live on campus (room and board: $4,454), one of the highest percentages of any public college. In their off-hours, Rutgers students can escape academics with 30 varsity sports and 400 special-interest activities. In addition, Manhattan and Philadelphia are within an hour's drive of the school's leafy quadrangles. And thanks to its location between the two major cities, minorities form a hefty 40% of Rutgers' 1994-95 freshmen.

8. California Institute of Technology Not for the faint-of-brain or slender-of-wallet, Caltech's truly extraordinary education justifies its high price tag (tuition and fees: $16,905; room and board: $6,122). The Pasadena school spends a mind-boggling $39,000 per student for instruction -- tops in the nation -- and its 3-to-1 student/teacher ratio approaches private tutoring. And what tutors! Caltech professors regularly attract major research funding, including $120 million from the federal government, putting this tiny school in the top third of university grant recipients. Thus, students can work on cutting-edge projects side by side with the top minds in their fields. Only the best students need apply. Caltech admits just 25% of applicants to its 200-member freshman class (average GPAs: 3.9; SATs: 1,413), and 80% of them go on to earn advanced degrees. The school's larger-than-average core curriculum, which includes humanities and the social sciences, doesn't leave students much time for academic groping. (Caltech's brochure likens the course load to "drinking water from a fire hose.") Because the workload is so heavy, Caltech breeds a strong sense of togetherness among students. "In high school, a lot of us were considered 'different,'" says junior Angie Bealko, 19, an engineering and applied science major. "Here, we fit right in." To ease the freshmen's introduction to Caltech's pressured environment, orientation takes place over three low-key days on Catalina Island, 26 miles off the Pacific coast. First-year classes are all pass/fail, and exams are conducted with books open. The school operates on an honor code so complete that students have their own keys to all classrooms, labs and other facilities. That enables them to work whenever they choose. Caltech does have one major flaw -- lack of diversity. Women account for only 24% of students, African Americans just 2%.

9. Spelman College One of only two historically black women's colleges in the U.S. (the other is Bennett in North Carolina), Spelman's guiding principle is sisterhood -- solidarity among women of color. Here, they find what they want. Through the support and example of their mostly female teachers, students are encouraged to become leaders, achievers and fulfillers of their own dreams. As a result, the Atlanta private school is a magnet for ambitious, capable young women (average GPAs: 3.4; SATs: 1,002), 99.9% of them African American and 47% from the top 10% of their high school classes. A startling 38% major in math, science or engineering, and 45% go on to pursue graduate degrees. A full 7% enter medical school, placing Spelman among the top 10 colleges producing black doctors-to-be. College president Johnnetta B. Cole, appointed in 1987 -- affectionately known to students as "sister Pres" -- is determined to make Spelman one of the country's academically strongest colleges. Recently, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching upgraded the school from " Baccalaureate Two" status to "Baccalaureate One," a selectivity designation that puts Spelman, which accepts about 33% of applicants, in the company of Wellesley and Williams. At the same time, Cole has retained some socially gracious touches of Spelman's past as a finishing school for well-to-do young women. Nearly half the students do volunteer work at a homeless children's shelter, the Red Cross or other charitable venues, and the cafeteria boasts spotless white tablecloths and fresh flowers. While Spelman, with a 15-to-1 student/faculty ratio, offers only 21 majors, students can take courses at 18 other schools within driving distance. Engineering majors, for instance, can earn five-year dual B.S. and B.E. degrees from Spelman and the prestigious Georgia Institute of Technology. Or students can design their own majors. Spelman's tuition and fees are a relatively modest $8,290; room and board cost $5,565. However, 85% of students receive financial aid averaging $7,022.

10. St. Mary's College of Maryland Set on 275 isolated acres near its namesake, St. Mary's City -- a 1634 colonial settlement -- St. Mary's College is one of only two so-called public honors colleges in the country (the other is New College). The designation means that, because of its proven educational quality, St. Mary's is directed by its own board of trustees, rather than state bureaucrats. As a result, the 1,315-student public college has much of the independence and individuality of a small, private school but at a state-supported price. Tuition and fees for Maryland residents (84% of the student body) are $4,915; nonresidents pay $7,415. Room and board add $4,730.

St. Mary's reputation as one of Maryland's best liberal arts schools keeps admission standards high. Entering freshmen, 20% of whom are minorities, boast average GPAs of 3.25, SATs of 1,194. The student/faculty ratio is 14 to 1. Virtually all faculty are full-timers with Ph.D.s, and since 1982, they have earned 17 Fulbright awards. Unlike most colleges, where students can meet basic requirements with a random selection of courses, St. Mary's undergrads must take a prescribed interdisciplinary sequence linking world civilization, literature, the arts and the natural, social and behavioral sciences. The college offers only 19 majors (some popular subjects elsewhere, such as engineering and communication, are missing). But St. Mary's provides unusual leeway for study in four foreign countries, internships with the federal government and independent projects, such as a six-week effort to improve nutrition in a Sri Lankan village. Offsetting the college's remote location, a 1 1/2-hour drive from either Washington D.C. or Baltimore, is its proximity to Chesapeake Bay -- the school has a boathouse and 50 sailboats. While freshmen and sophomores are housed in dorms, juniors and seniors can live in deluxe townhouses with fireplaces and patios that open onto the athletic fields.