A QUICK LOOK AT THE TOP 10 THE COLLEGES THAT LEAD OUR VALUE RANKINGS PROVIDE THE BEST EDUCATION IN AMERICA FOR THE PRICES THEY CHARGE.
By KAREN CHENEY REPORTER ASSOCIATE: LISA LEVENSON

(MONEY Magazine) – Our top 10 colleges share this critically important characteristic: Compared with schools of similar quality, they cost the least. The winners range in price from tuition and fees of $18,216 at No. 1 California Institute of Technology to $5,516 at No. 4 Truman State University in Missouri. They vary in size from 35,000 students at No. 8, the University of Texas at Austin, to 600 at No. 2 New College of the University of South Florida. Their academic specialties run the gamut from engineering at Caltech and No. 3 Rice to the liberal arts at No. 10 St. Mary's College of Maryland.

To identify our top 10, we used 16 measures of academic quality, from test scores to graduation rates, to evaluate each of 1,115 four-year colleges and universities, and then we compared the results with each school's tuition and fees. (For more top values, see the rankings beginning on page 108; for an explanation of our methodology, turn to page 118.) One of these 10 winners can deliver what any student needs at the best price:

1. CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

Caltech's $18,216 tuition and fees are more than a third higher than the national private school average of $12,892. In addition, Caltech students pay $5,478 for room and board. But they get a phenomenal return. Thanks largely to a hefty $696 million endowment, the school spends a dizzying $46,613 per student on instruction--the most of any U.S. college and nine times more than the average of $5,008. One result: an almost unheard-of student-to-faculty ratio of 3 to 1. Faculty members receive more than $150 million a year in research funds--roughly half a million each--so it's common even for freshmen to work with world-class professors on such projects as studying magnetic sensory perception in human beings.

Of course, only the gifted need apply. Thirty-nine percent of this year's freshmen on the 124-acre, palm-studded campus in Pasadena scored perfect 800s on the math section of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), and nearly all were in the top 3% of their high school graduating classes. You can obtain more information on Caltech from its Website (http://www.caltech.edu).

2. NEW COLLEGE OF THE U. OF SOUTH FLORIDA

This liberal arts gem on the Sarasota estate of Charles Ringling, the brother of circus legend John, prides itself on its interactive approach to learning. Every term, students draw up academic contracts with faculty advisers detailing their educational goals. Instead of grades, students receive comprehensive two-page evaluations from teachers.

Students must be self-starters with first-rate academic credentials. The 600 undergrads, 58% from Florida, boast average high school grade point averages (GPAs) of 3.87 and impressive SATs of 1,339, vs. the U.S. average of 1,010. Tuition and fees at New College--which ranked No. 1 for three years before being edged out by Caltech--total $8,500 for out-of-state students, slightly above the $7,481 average for nonresidents at public schools. Floridians pay $2,200; room and board cost $4,017. (http://virtu.sar.usf.edu/NC)

3. RICE UNIVERSITY

Competitive Rice accepted a mere 26% of its 6,843 applicants for 1996-97--nearly a third of them National Merit Scholars. The bucolic 300-acre campus in Houston is best known for its engineering and sciences departments, but it's also strong in the humanities. This year, the music department is installing one of the country's largest organs, with 4,500 pipes.

Because of a towering $1.8 billion endowment, more than 80% of Rice students receive financial aid, cutting tuition, fees, room and board from the full price of $19,150 to an average of $12,999. Future price increases will stay low, since Rice has promised to boost costs no faster than increases in the consumer price index. Now that's music to parents' ears. (http://www.rice.edu)

4. TRUMAN STATE UNIVERSITY

Formerly a regional teacher's college called Northeast Missouri State, this Kirksville, Mo. school today offers a broad liberal arts curriculum that helps attract 25% of its 5,800 undergrads from outside of Missouri. The school is a bargain, with the cheapest out-of-state tuition and fees ($5,516) of our top 10. Residents pay just $3,108; room and board cost $3,808.

You won't find big-city lights near Kirksville (pop. 18,000). But with roughly 190 special-interest groups on campus, including the Art History Society and Pre-Veterinary Club, there's plenty to do. And Truman State students like to get involved. Almost all of this fall's roughly 1,500 freshmen have previous community service and leadership experience. (http://www.truman.edu)

5. COLLEGE OF NEW JERSEY

This year, to shed its identification with the state's grimy capital, Trenton State College became the College of New Jersey--a name that once belonged to nearby Princeton University. Fully 95% of CNJ's students hail from the Garden State. Their SAT scores average 1,182, and 82% came from the top 20% of their high school graduating classes. Tuition and fees are $7,032 for out-of-staters and $4,446 for residents; room and board cost $5,793. Besides its low prices, the school attracts students with interdisciplinary courses, such as "Mind, Language and Computers" and "The Holocaust in Art." CNJ is also a perennial NCAA Division III championship contender, especially in women's athletics; last year, the women won national championships in field hockey, lacrosse and softball. (http://www.tcnj.edu)

6. UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL

If you're from out of state, the price tag won't hook you--$10,693 for tuition and fees, 30% more than the average at public schools in our listing--but the setting will. A lovely red-brick walkway crisscrosses the 729-acre, tree-lined campus, which is dotted with colonial to postmodern buildings. Dig a little deeper, and you'll be even more impressed. More than 90% of Chapel Hill's professors hold the highest degrees in their fields, and 89% of this year's freshmen ranked in the top 20% of their high school classes. If you're not from North Carolina, however, don't count on being accepted. The UNC system's board of governors limits nonresidents to 18% of every freshman class. On the other hand, UNC charges in-state students only $2,161 in tuition and fees, compared with $2,280 for the typical public school. Room and board are $4,500. (http://www.unc.edu)

7. SPELMAN COLLEGE

This African-American women's college on 32 tree-shaded acres in Atlanta enjoys a special sense of community. To help freshmen adjust to college life, Spelman sponsors a series of mandatory convocation lectures by female business and civic leaders, some of whom become mentors, or shangazi (Swahili for aunt). It's no surprise that 90% of freshmen return to Spelman for their sophomore year, vs. the 75% average of colleges in our listing, starting on page 138. While the school is racially homogeneous, Spelman's 1,900 students hail from 49 states and 10 foreign countries. Students can take classes for credit at 18 schools in the area, including Georgia State University and Georgia Tech. Tuition and fees run $9,650; room and board, $6,130. (http://www.spelman.edu)

8. UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN

Everything's bigger in Texas, and the University of Texas is no exception. With roughly 35,000 undergrads and 15 separate colleges, UT at Austin offers no end of social and academic opportunities, all for tuition and fees of $9,032 for out-of-staters and $2,612 for Texans. (Room and board cost $3,683.) To supplement classroom study, students can work at any of 87 research units, focusing on everything from new cancer treatments to presidential elections. Not surprisingly, the school attracts big brains; in both 1994 and 1995, the university enrolled the second largest number of National Merit Scholars in the country. (Harvard enrolled the most.) Go, Longhorns! (http://www.utexas.edu)

9. STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT BINGHAMTON

The crown jewel of New York State's public university system, SUNY at Binghamton offers 57 undergraduate degree programs from the arts to engineering, as well as 65 master's and 21 Ph.D. programs. Its 9,281 undergrads live in four so-called residential colleges, each of which has its own dormitories, dining hall and intramural athletic team.

While New York State residents make up all but 7% of the student body, it's a diverse group, with minorities accounting for 31% of last year's freshmen. What's more, Binghamton--200 miles northwest of New York City on a 600-acre wooded campus--attracts high achievers. Nearly 60% of last year's freshmen ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes. Tuition and fees run $8,790 for out-of-state students and $3,910 for residents. Room and board cost $4,814. (http://www.binghamton.edu)

10. ST. MARY'S COLLEGE OF MARYLAND

Run by its own trustees rather than the board that governs the state's other public schools, St. Mary's has many of a private college's independent features without the exorbitant price tag. Tuition and fees cost $9,555 for out-of-staters and $6,005 for residents; room and board are $5,220. Additionally, last year's freshmen received an average of $3,200 each in grants, nearly five times more than the typical public school in our listing.

St. Mary's innovative academic programs make it one of Maryland's best liberal arts schools. For instance, it offers an interdisciplinary core curriculum linking the arts, history and the natural sciences, as well as several foreign study programs. Students, 84% of whom are from Maryland, boast average GPAs of 3.5 and SATs of 1,285. (http://www.smcm.edu)

Reporter associate: Lisa Levenson