Kiplinger Best Value Colleges 2015: The Honor$ Angle

In the past, we have listed the Kiplinger Best Value universities without much additional comment.  The Kiplinger methodology emphasizes a “quality” side in relation to the “cost” side of a university.  The quality side includes selectivity, retention, and four-year grad rates, while the cost side takes tuition, fees, merit aid, need-based aid, and post-graduation debt into account.

For 2015, Kiplinger presents a single list approach to compare private and public universities.  The list uses out-of-state tuition for state schools in order to provide an allegedly “apples to apples” comparison with private colleges and universities, which of course have the same listed tuition and fees for students from anywhere in the country.  The Kiplinger list also emphasizes need-based aid, and many of the best scholarships for honors students are merit-based.  (Kiplinger also lists best value public colleges separately.)

For highly-qualified prospective honors students, the Kiplinger list is misleading, because (a) most students going to public universities are in state and (b) many honors students who go out of state receive tuition offsets or merit aid that reduce the costs used by Kiplinger.  As we point out below, many private elites do not provide any merit aid, only need-based aid.  Families with relatively good incomes will find that even with all need-based aid provided by the private elite university, a typical family with a good income will still have to pay about $16,000 to $22,000 a year in out of pocket costs, and up to more than $50,000 a year if the family income is in the $200,000 range or higher.

So…if you’re the parent of a prospective honors student who is considering either an in-state or out-of-state public university, your cost assessment for purposes of comparison with the private elites must go beyond the Kiplinger data and include an evaluation of all merit-based (i.e., not need-based) aid offered to outstanding honors applicants.  While it’s true that National Merit Scholars and Semifinalists are often especially favored by public universities, it is also true that honors students who are not national scholars are also strong candidates for other types of merit aid.

Here are some examples:

The Kiplinger report for 2015 lists Princeton University as the number one best value in the nation.  With the cost of one year at Princeton now at $59,165, Kiplinger accurately states that Princeton provides 100% of need-based aid for all students.  Recall that need-based aid is the amount left over after the expected family contribution (EFC) has been calculated.  But the average amount that still remains to be paid by a family for the year at Princeton, after the school takes care of all need-based aid, is still about $21,982. (This would be about what a family of four with an adjusted gross income of $137,500 would have to pay, given savings of $50,000.)

The University of Arizona is not even listed among the 300 Kiplinger best value colleges in the nation, but an out-of-state national scholar/honors student at the UA Honors College would receive $30,000, against the $43,800 cost of tuition, fees, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses, leaving $13,800.   This is a four-year savings of about $32,000 versus Princeton.  An in-state national scholar would receive $20,000, compared to in-state costs of $18,300—in other words, a “full ride”—amounting to a savings of about $87,000 compared to Princeton.  Bear in mind that qualifying for a national scholarship is generally a lower requirement in terms of test scores than Princeton would require.

An out-of-state honors student and national scholar at the Joe C. and Carole Kerr McClendon Honors College at Oklahoma University can receive a whopping $120,000 in merit aid over four years (another full ride), which also includes funding for study abroad.  In-state national scholars receive $66,000, a full ride that also includes funding for study abroad.  Yet OU is ranked 196th among all 300 colleges by Kiplinger.

Other honors colleges that provide full ride merit scholarships are the University of Alabama Honors College, the University of Kentucky Honors Program, and the Sally McConnell Barksdale Honors College at Ole Miss.  Many others also provide very generous merit aid based on combinations of test scores and high school gpas.  Penn State’s excellent Schreyer Honors College provide ALL its freshmen with a $4,000 merit award, which is renewable for all four years.

So do you have to be a national scholar to receive the kind of financial aid that would lead you to choose a public honors program over an elite private university?

Consider that 95% of students at Arizona State’s outstanding Barrett Honors College receive merit aid—but 40% also have need-based aid on top of (not in place of) merit aid.  The number of national scholars who can receive merit aid from ASU is uncapped=no limit.  Most national scholars, in-state or out-of-state, receive tuition waivers or offsets to go along with any need-based aid.

About 90 students in the highly selective and excellent University of Georgia Honors Program are eligible for a Foundation Fellowship, which “approximates the full cost of attendance and supplies a generous set of enrichment funds to support study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, etc.”  Another 20-30 honors students receive the Ramsey Honors Scholarship that provides about 75% of the amount of the Foundation Fellowship.   The honors director reports that “the majority of these funding opportunities are directly attributable to the fact that the Honors Program has its own, very active fundraising office.”  The minimum test score requirements for these awards are generally lower than those for national scholarships.

Below are the public universities that have the best value, according to Kiplinger, in terms of in-state costs.  Please note that this list does not include any additional merit awards for honors students.

North Carolina

Virginia

UC Berkeley

UCLA

Michigan

William & Mary

Wisconsin

Maryland

Georgia

Washington

NC State

New College Florida

UT Austin

Ohio State

UC Santa Barbara

Georgia Tech

Binghamton

Truman State

New Mexico Institute of Mining and Tech

James Madison

Florida State

College of New Jersey

SUNY Geneseo

Texas A&M

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