(USA TODAY) Some of the lowest tuition and best financial aid for prospective college students are offered by some of the most academically demanding institutions, The Princeton Review says in annual rankings released today.
In its annual list of the 150 Best Value Colleges, the company's message to parents is simple: Tell your kids to study hard, because a strong academic record - not a family's take-home pay - should drive a student's decision about where to apply.
"Lots of students and families are nervous about paying for college," says Rob Franek, senior vice president of The Princeton Review, a New York-based education services company that is not affiliated with Princeton University."The best thing you can do is to make yourself attractive to a school academically."
TOP 10: Public, private universities
INTERACTIVE: Details on each college
INSIDE THE DATA: Male to female ratios on campuses
The company says the 150 colleges - 75 public and 75 private - on its 2014 Best Value list do an exceptional job helping bright students earn a degree without going broke.
Findings are based on a Princeton Review analysis of admissions, tuition and financial aid data for about 650 colleges in the 2012-13 school year.
This month, more than 100 college presidents vowed during a White House summit to boost the numbers of low-income and minority students coming to their campuses and to ensure they complete a degree.
As the Obama administration moves forward on plans announced last fall to rate colleges on measures such as average tuition, graduation rates and student debt levels, colleges will have more incentive to reach out to students whose families struggle financially.
"We're really trying to open our doors to talented, low-income kids," says Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a newcomer to this year's top 10 Best Value private schools. The school pledged during the White House summit to expand and make permanent a pilot project aimed at recruiting and retaining low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college.
Over the six years that USA TODAY has published Princeton Review's 150 Best Value Colleges, 219 colleges have appeared on the full list at least once, and 41 have ranked among the top 10 public or private colleges.
In that time, the academic expectations set by schools have remained high and relatively unchanged. As a group, this year's Best Value Colleges accept 40% of applicants.
In contrast, the financial aid picture can fluctuate - sometimes dramatically - from school to school and year to year, a reflection of the challenges colleges and families face in uncertain economic times.
Until this year, for example, New York City's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was one of a handful of colleges to offer all qualified students a full tuition scholarship. Last year, the college announced that it will charge tuition beginning with the fall 2014 entering class. For that reason, Cooper Union ranks in the top 10 Best Value private schools this year.
Other highlights among the top 10 Best Value Colleges:
• At Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., which like many private schools stopped including loans in financial aid awards in 2008, 32% of undergraduates borrowed last year, down from 53% the previous year. Several other private colleges, including Amherst and Harvard, reported a similar pattern.
• Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., a newcomer to the top 10 public universities, boasted the lowest tuition for out-of-state students - $12,968, below what some public universities, including the University of Michigan, charge for state residents. The University of North Carolina, a perennial top 10 Best Value public university, charged the lowest tuition for in-state students, $5,823.
• Among public institutions, the State University of New York-Binghamton, University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Michigan reported double-digit percentage increases in the average freshman grant award while keeping tuition increases to 5% or less. The University of Michigan also reported a 46% drop in the size of the average freshman loan.
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