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Princeton Review Targets Best Value Colleges

A four-year degree doesn't have to bury college-bound students in debt.

Faced with state budget cuts and recession, some colleges and universities are stepping up their financial aid offerings.

Many of those schools are on The Princeton Review's list of 100 Best Value Colleges for 2010, four-year public and private institutions that strive for both quality and affordability.

"These schools are excelling at fulfilling the financial aid need for students, and the rigor of academics is still very high," says David Soto, director of content development for The Princeton Review, which produces the annual list. The company has partnered with USA TODAY to publish an interactive database, with detailed analysis of the schools and why they were chosen, at BestValueColleges.usatoday.com.

The Princeton Review looked at academics, costs and financial aid from about 700 campuses its editors considered the most selective out of more than 2,000 public and private four-year schools in the U.S. The New York education services and test-prep company is not affiliated with Princeton University.

This year's list keeps the University of Virginia and Swarthmore College in the No. 1 spots for public and private schools, like last year. Several others on this year's list also appeared last year, including Harvard, Florida State and the University of Georgia. Some are new to the top 10, such as the University of Colorado-Boulder, Texas A&M, MIT, Virginia Tech, the University of Oklahoma, Wellesley and Wesleyan College in Georgia.

Academic ratings were based on surveys of students about class sizes and professors' accessibility, as well as student/faculty ratios and percentage of classes taught by teaching assistants. Financial aid rankings came from school-reported data and student surveys, and factored in tuition, fees, room and board.

Grants rise along with tuition

Prices have increased dramatically in the past 10 years, show data from the non-profit College Board, which tracks college costs. Tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year public schools jumped 46 percent, from an average of $10,440 in 1999-2000 to $15,210 last year, when adjusting for inflation. For private four-year schools, costs rose 28 percent in that period, from an average of $27,740 to $35,640.

But Best Value Colleges provided on average $875 more in grant money per student this year, even as their tuitions rose. Nine schools don't charge tuition.

The U.S. Department of Education gave out $18.2 billion in Pell Grants for low-income students, up from $6.2 billion in the 1999-2000 school year, data show. Next year, the government plans $129 billion in grants, loans and work-study opportunities for about 14 million students.

But even though more grant aid and student loan money is available than in the past, some states are cutting need-based grants, says Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst for the College Board. At least 36 states enacted or proposed education cuts because they faced massive, "devastating" budget deficits in this recession, says a report last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-profit research group in Washington, D.C.

In Arizona, for example, about $232 million was trimmed from the university system in fiscal 2009 and 2010, according to the Arizona Board of Regents. But both Arizona State and the University of Arizona remained on Princeton Review's list; Arizona universities saw a $13 million increase in state aid from 2004-05 to 2008-09, says a regents report.

Need-based aid to undergrads

At UVA, the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board was $19,112 for in-state students and $41,112 out of state.

Need-based aid to undergrads rose from $37 million in 2003-04 to $59.1 million last year, and 1,250 entering students took advantage of those funds this year, says spokeswoman Marian Anderfuren. The average undergrad got $9,673 in need-based grants and graduated with about $19,016 in debt.

"We're looking at a pretty diverse list of schools," Soto says. "These schools are exceptional, and they're giving their students the aid they need."

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