(MONEY Magazine) – The students shown here are revving up their minds and muscles at Caltech, ranked by MONEY as America's best college buy for the second straight year. Like other schools that earned a place in our top 10, Caltech can boast of topflight students, faculty and facilities. And it shares with all the others this most critical attribute: Compared with schools of similar academic quality, it costs the least. To identify the top 10, we used 16 measures of accomplishment, from test scores to graduation rates, in evaluating 1,115 four-year colleges. We then compared the results with each school's tuition and fees. (For more top values, see the rankings beginning on page 140; for an explanation of our methodology, turn to page 115.)

While no college is right for all students, and no two of our top 10 schools are exactly alike, an examination of their excellence can assist your child in conducting a successful college search. Indeed, when MONEY correspondents traveled across the country to interview students at our top 10, they heard many of the same compliments again and again--a sure sign that outstanding colleges have certain characteristics in common. Among them: serious students, approachable professors and a stimulating social life. Plus, quite prominently, the schools must be worth the prices they charge.

Costs vary among MONEY's top 10--from $18,816 a year for tuition and fees at the highest priced, Caltech, to a low of $5,845 (for out-of-state students, our financial yardstick in ranking public colleges) at No. 8 Truman State Univeristy in Kirksville, Mo. But each of the schools, in its own way, is so rich in resources that every penny you pay is money well spent. For example, three public universities in our top 10 are the proud flagships of their state systems: No. 3 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ($10,714 for out-of-staters' tuition and fees), No. 4 State University of New York at Binghamton ($9,105) and No. 10 University of Florida ($7,843). As flagships, all offer elaborate menus of majors and showcase the superior faculty and facilities necessary to draw high-achieving students from around the nation.

Four other state schools--Truman State; New College of the University of South Florida in Sarasota, No. 6 ($9,343); the College of New Jersey in Trenton, No. 7 ($7,672); and the State University of New York at Geneseo, No. 9 ($8,916)--provide the attraction of small classes and considerable individual attention. New College, for example, offers students the chance to design their own courses of study with the help of their professors.

Among the three private schools that complete MONEY's top 10 listing, Houston's Rice University, No. 2 ($13,300), boasts the second biggest endowment per student among private U.S. research universities as of July 1996--$507,000, behind Princeton's $701,000. As a rule, well-endowed schools can afford to provide more esteemed professors, finer facilities and more generous financial aid packages than less wealthy colleges. Atlanta's Spelman College, No. 5 ($9,421), an African-American women's school, offers its students exceptional personal attention in addition to a sterling education; for example, local business and civic leaders serve as mentors. And Caltech, with 24 Nobel-prizewinning professors and alumni, simply bursts with brainpower: Nearly 100% of the school's faculty members boast Ph.D.s (the college average nationally is 54%), and the class of 2000 scored an average 767 on the math SAT (the average nationally is 508).

In addition to seeking and choosing among attractions like the ones listed above, your child should look for the following signal qualities that help to make our top 10 colleges great. These four attributes can spearhead a special educational experience almost anywhere.

--Studious students. With college costs running so high today (an average $7,118 a year for tuition, fees, room and board at public schools and $18,184 at private universities, according to the College Board), you would think that the class clowns and other assorted underachievers that your child had to tolerate in high school wouldn't bother going to college. Unfortunately, many kids who have hated school ever since they were kindergartners continue on to college because their parents push them to go. Assuming that your offspring is a scholar, not a slacker, your aim should be to send him to a school that has the luxury of admitting only serious students. That's true of the colleges in our top 10. Marvels Caltech senior Phillip Rodriguez, who is majoring in mechanical engineering: "There are a lot of supergeniuses here. Everybody was No. 1 in their high school class."

Why is it so important that your presumably motivated child attend a college filled with similarly inclined kids? For one thing, good students are unlikely to coast if lots of other equally bright and energetic scholars egg them on. Additionally, many employers don't respect colleges with reputations for letting in loads of mediocre students. Your child may work hard and even learn a lot at such a school, but her efforts may not lead to a top first job, because employers prefer to hire from schools that attract superior students.

To figure out what kind of students a college admits, check its academic level in MONEY's listings of 1,115 schools, which begin on page 140. And when visiting campuses, your child should ask students to rate the difficulty of the courses they've taken. Be happy if she gets answers like MONEY's correspondent did from Leslie Fletcher, a public relations major who graduated from the University of Florida in August. Said Fletcher: "I feel like I've been put through the wringer. I would not tell anyone who wasn't ready to work hard to go to UF."

--Approachable professors. If Garrison Keillor's flawless Lake Wobegon had a college, each of its classes would have no more than a dozen students (all of above-average intelligence, of course). And professors would never be too busy writing their next obscure tome to share valuable intellectual insights with students over a cup of java.

No real-life college, of course, can match mythical LWU. But what helps make the schools we're spotlighting special, according to their students, is that even professors who lecture to large groups are usually eager to meet with undergraduates one-on-one.

In general, faculty members at the smaller colleges on our list, like Truman State (6,017 undergraduates), are more apt to reach out to students than are professors at huge state universities, which is something to bear in mind if your child is shy. Says Truman State junior Reggi Padberg, who is majoring in psychology: "My biggest class had 60 students, but the higher-level classes have only 10 or 15. It's easy to talk to the faculty. When you do have problems, you're not lost in the shuffle. I've probably been to every professor's office at least once." Adds Megan Edwards, a Truman State senior who's also majoring in psychology: "I like the fact that all my teachers know my name and give me their home phone numbers."

Students at the larger schools in our top 10 generally must take the initiative if they want to meet with professors outside of class, but faculty members are available when students need them. Says Rupal Kothari, a junior who's majoring in political science and economics at SUNY- Binghamton, which serves 9,349 undergraduates: "You have to go to the professors if you want help. In the beginning it was really scary for me to ask for help, but now I'll speak my mind." At Caltech, says sophomore Gabriel Au, "Not only are my professors approachable, but my teaching assistants often have their office hours from midnight until 2 a.m., because they know that's when you'll be working and will have questions."

--A rich social life. Virtually every college in America offers its students the option of drinking themselves silly on weekends. Naturally, you'd prefer that your offspring go to a college that features plenty of more wholesome amusements too--maybe even some cultural activities that will round out his education.

Entertainment is usually easier to come by at big-city schools--and at colleges that are just plain big, like the University of Florida, with 30,750 undergraduates, which attracts performers and speakers such as Billy Joel and Oprah Winfrey. So are topflight athletic teams like the University of North Carolina's powerhouse basketball Tar Heels. "Athletics give the University of North Carolina a real unity and spirit," says Lisa Cederbaum, a senior majoring in biology.

But while smaller schools don't typically have sports teams with nationwide followings, the best of the bunch still offer plenty of activities. Consider Truman State in tiny (pop. 17,000) Kirksville, for example. Even university president Jack Magruder, a native son, admits that "Kirksville is not the hub of the universe." Yet the college boasts 203 campus organizations, from fraternities to the Art of Living Club, whose members practice yoga and meditation. Major-league entertainers, like the rock band Blind Melon and comedian Howie Mandell, also visit Truman State.

Taking the pulse of a college's social life is easy on a campus visit. Your child can check bulletin boards, the student newspaper and posters to find out what's happening. If she can't visit, she can ask the admissions office to send her a calendar of upcoming events at the school.

--A zeal for self-improvement. No college is perfect, but considering the high price of a bachelor's degree nowadays, parents and students have every right to expect that college administrators are striving to fix whatever flaws their schools might have. The College of New Jersey, for instance, is working hard to shed its old reputation as the Suitcase College. Only 64% of its 5,744 undergraduates live on campus, and students say that many of them clear out on weekends. To make the campus seem less like a commuter station, the school has added 740 dormitory beds over the past five years. This fall, townhouses will be ready for occupancy by 240 upperclassmen, and the college will also break ground for a $45 million science center, which in 1999 will house its biology, chemistry, math and physics programs. "The college administrators are definitely trying to make things better," says junior mechanical-engineering major Dan Mullen.

One of Truman State's flaws is a lack of ethnic and racial diversity: Only 8% of its students are minorities. Yet, says junior Jimmy Ruiz, the school "is very much open to diversity. It's been helpful in supporting me in establishing its Hispanic fraternity." Additionally, says Ruiz, a premed and biology major, the admissions staff has had him write a letter for it to use in efforts to attract more Hispanic students.

The easiest way to detect a college's blemishes--and to figure out if administrators are doing anything to fix them--is by chatting up students and faculty members and reading the student newspaper. Information is also available in irreverent college guides, such as The Best 311 Colleges (Random House/Princeton Review Books, $20). If you know what students are complaining about, you'll be able to ask admissions officials pointed questions about what the school is doing to address those concerns. And the knowledge will help your child make a wise college choice.