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Getting the most bang for your college buck

Posted by gradefund on January 9, 2009

Getting the most bang for your college buck

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

As college admission deadlines wind down and families submit financial aid applications for next fall, freshmen in 2009 will be the first to start college clearly in the throes of the recession.

What this will mean for students and colleges is just beginning to be understood. But one thing is clear — now, more than ever, students and parents need to make every education dollar count.



The Princeton Review’s list of 100 “Best Value” Colleges for 2009, released today by The Princeton Review and USA TODAY, aims to help them do just that.

The education services and test-prep company’s annual list ranks the top 10 public and private colleges and universities; the rest are listed alphabetically. Deemed No. 1 Best Value for a public university is the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; No. 1 among private campuses is Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa.

Value is about more than just cost, says Robert Franek, Princeton Review’s vice president for publishing. “We didn’t want to put schools in the project that just had low sticker prices because that didn’t necessarily mean value.”

And questions of value take on added significance in this economic downturn.

“In the past, when recessions have been reasonably mild and short, people planning to send kids to four-year colleges continued to send them to four-year colleges and worked it out. But in the past, we haven’t had college-educated parents laid off from jobs,” says Tom Mortenson of Oskaloosa, Iowa, who publishes a higher-education public-policy newsletter. “This recession looks to be different.”

From 2004 to 2007, The Princeton Review’s results were published in a book, America’s Best Value Colleges, and data appeared on the company’s website. This year, through a partnership with USA TODAY, the full list and analysis are in an interactive database on The Princeton Review, based in New York, is not affiliated with Princeton University.

College costs have skyrocketed in the past 10 years. At public campuses, for example, in-state costs are up 37%, according to data from the College Board, a non-profit group that tracks annual tuition increases. This year, it says, average total charges for tuition, fees, room and board are $14,333 for in-state students, $25,200 out of state. The average total at private campuses is $34,132. Institutions themselves provide the largest source of grant aid — representing 42% of all grant aid, the College Board says.

Out of the USA’s 643 public four-year institutions and 1,533 private four-year campuses, The Princeton Review regularly analyzes data from approximately 650 campuses that it considers the best, although Franek says the schools in the mix do change from year to year. Of the 650, about 100 didn’t provide enough information to be considered as Best Values, says Ben Zelevansky, who directs Princeton Review’s data analysis.

The selection criteria looked at academics, costs and financial aid, using the most recently reported data from each institution for its 2008-09 academic year. Additionally, 160,000 to 175,000 student surveys provided input for the academic ratings.

The Princeton Review’s aim was to determine the average annual cost that a freshman paid for the 2008-09 school year, Zelevansky says; for public institutions, the determinations were based on calculations using a combination of in-state and out-of-state tuitions.

At the University of Virginia, the No. 1 Best Value for public schools, this year’s tuition, fees, room and board totaled $18,499 for in-state students and $37,749 out of state. The average grant UVA offered (including scholarships) totaled $9,531. The average 2008 graduate’s debt was $16,847.

UVA president John Casteen says AccessUVA, a financial aid program, is an effort to meet student need and has been funded since 2004. The current undergraduate enrollment is 13,726.

But today’s economic climate means cutbacks are expected, Casteen says. “We are in the middle of squeezing a great deal money out of the university’s administrative processes.”

At top-rated private college Swarthmore, with 1,480 undergraduates for the 2008-09 year, the total cost is $47,804, with the bulk — $36,154 — for tuition. But the average grant is $30,073. The school did not report the amount of student debt.

Alfred Bloom, Swarthmore’s president, says he expects increased financial aid will be needed. “We’ve had a long tradition of assuring that students can accept Swarthmore offers without regard to financial circumstances.”

At each of the top two campuses, about 70% of students graduated debt-free in 2008. But aid is not the only criterion for inclusion, says Zelevansky.

“This is not a list of America’s Best Financial Aid Packages,” he says. “This is a list of schools that provide the best balance of a strong education and a reasonable cost of attendance. The bottom-line cost for families is our concern here.”

Not listed are public schools including University of Wisconsin-Madison or University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; missing among private schools are New York University and George Washington University, the USA’s most expensive four-year campus.

“You can still get a solid education at a good value from a school that didn’t make our list, but the schools on our list really go above and beyond,” Zelevansky says.


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