Our top pick among universities is Princeton. For liberal arts colleges, Pomona gets the nod. By Jane Bennett Clark, Senior Editor December 1, 2011 Imagine that you had the money to send your child to any private college in the country. Then imagine that your kid was talented enough to be accepted at any college in the country. With all those choices, you’d still want a college that delivered the best bang for the buck, wouldn’t you? In the real world, where money is tight and your selection limited, you have every reason to expect the same thing.SEE ALSO: The Claremont McKenna Controversy We’re here to help. As always, our 2011-12 rankings for best values in private colleges and universities identify institutions that are both academically strong and affordable -- our definition of value. This year, however, we took a fresh look at the criteria that go into that definition to better reflect the issues that affect real families, and we tweaked our presentation so that you can better fit the school to your circumstances. SEE OUR TOOL: Get Complete Rankings for Our Top 200 Private Universities and Liberal Arts Colleges Advertisement For example, we now assign more points to the four-year graduation rate than to the five -- the faster your student graduates, the more money you save. Freshman retention -- the percentage of students who return after the first year -- remains a major factor in our rankings: "It tells you whether this is likely to be a good school for the long haul," says Jane Wellman, of the Delta Project, which studies college finance. On the cost side, we give added weight to colleges that rein in student debt. SEE ALSO: How We Ranked the Schools Those changes have sharpened our focus, but they don't turn the previous rankings on their head. Princeton, this year's number-one value among private universities, has appeared at or near the top of our list for several years running, thanks to its outstanding academic quality and generous financial-aid policies. Pomona, ranked first among liberal-arts colleges, makes its third appearance at the top of the liberal-arts list for a similarly stellar showing. In each case, the new criteria confirmed what we already knew: These schools deliver consistently great value. Higher Costs, More Aid Advertisement You'd think with the struggling economy that private schools would have priced themselves out of the market. In fact, enrollment at these schools is rising, and not just among the affluent. Private colleges are attracting more low-income students, students who are the first in their family to attend college and students of color, says David Warren, of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). Meanwhile, sticker prices keep rising, by an annual average of about 4.5%. The price tag at private institutions currently runs an average of about $37,000; many colleges blew past the $50,000 mark several years ago. Still, "the important thing is to not obsess on posted tuition, because there is so much financial aid out there," says Ronald Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. That allows more students -- including low-income students -- to attend. The need-based aid packages in our list generally rose in lockstep with rising prices. At Princeton, average aid knocks the total cost from $50,269 a year to less than $16,000, a bargain by any definition. At Pomona, aid reduces the $54,010 sticker price to less than $20,000. Most top-tier schools, including Princeton and Pomona, restrict their financial aid to families with need; lower-tier colleges woo students with merit scholarships (otherwise known as tuition discounts). Those discounts reduce the price for freshmen by an average of 49%, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. College administrators and policymakers call the discount level "unsustainable," but for now, the money is on the table, and students are grabbing it. Preserving Value Advertisement Whether they charge the full amount or fire-sale prices, private colleges spend more per student than public colleges, offer better service and smaller classes, and devote more resources to the campus setting. "They're selling the whole experience," says Wellman. That nurturing environment also gives students a straighter shot to a diploma. Private colleges have a far better record than publics of getting their students a degree within four years. Since the recession, private colleges have tried to protect both their core academic enterprise and student services while cutting nonessentials to the bone, says Warren, of NAICU. As a result, expect to find fewer assistant deans and more academic counselors, fewer climbing walls and better health facilities, the same small classes but more career counseling. "Nobody pretends that this is not a more difficult budget balancing act," he says. Among college administrators, "the word that comes up most is value." The colleges and universities in our rankings exemplify that standard. Two-thirds of our top 100 institutions bested the four-year graduation rate for all private colleges (51%) by at least 30 percentage points. At 92 of our top 100 schools, 90% or more of the freshmen returned for their sophomore year. And despite the budget-cutting, almost all of our top 100 institutions maintained their already-low student-faculty ratio. As for cost, here's a minor miracle: Ten colleges and eight universities out of our 100 didn't charge a sticker price of $50,000-plus this year, and three -- Wheaton and Hillsdale on the liberal-arts side and Elon among universities -- managed to keep their price below $40,000. Sewanee: University of the South put itself in a class of its own by cutting its total cost by 10%, to a relatively modest $42,318. Centre College and Gustavus Adophus stand out among liberal-arts colleges, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Portland shine on the university side for spreading their financial aid generously between need-based and non-need-based aid. Advertisement Princeton Meets Its Goal Ten years ago, Princeton University took the unprecedented step of eliminating loans from its financial-aid package, with the goal of shrinking student borrowing almost to the vanishing point. Mission accomplished: Princeton’s average debt -- $5,225 -- is the lowest on both our lists, and its students now borrow mostly for convenience, says Robin Moscato, director of financial aid. "They do so for reasons such as purchasing a laptop or replacing the work-study requirement. It’s a choice they make to improve their Princeton experience." Princeton uses its no-loan financial-aid policy to further another long-time goal: increasing diversity on campus. This Ivy League institution offers need-based aid to 57% of its students and would like to see that number grow. "We're always seeking and hoping to enroll more talented, qualified students from lower-income backgrounds," says Moscato. Students lucky enough to attend under any circumstance receive an outstanding education. Set on a storied campus, Princeton offers small classes, a broad-based curriculum, a student body filled with superstars and a faculty that practically teems with Nobel Prize winners. Its freshman retention rate is 98%, for good reason. Why would anyone leave? Pomona Sets Priorities When Pomona first topped our list in February 2009, President David Oxtoby faced a set of tough choices. The recession had sapped the school’s endowment and increased the demand for financial aid. Alumni donations had stalled. Pomona's ambitious plans for new arts facilities and new residence halls suddenly seemed, well, maybe too ambitious. Three years later, Pomona has rebounded with a recovering endowment, replenished donations and two state-of-the art residence halls. A campaign to fund the arts facilities, delayed for a year, is back on track. And the academic quality and plentiful financial aid that has twice before made Pomona our top-ranked college puts it at the top again. But the school is now making do with less, and some of the small luxuries that give Pomona its private-school cachet have dwindled or disappeared. Staff members who left have not been replaced. A member of the Claremont Colleges, the college has "significantly expanded" its cooperation with the four other undergraduate colleges in the consortium, sharing resources and programs. "We're not trying to do as much on our own," says Oxtoby. Pomona's signature outdoor-adventure program was cut back, and the chocolate-tasting extravaganza that kicked off exam week is no more. Leslie Appleton of Phoenix considers Pomona's small class sizes, high quality and liberal-arts focus well worth the price of admission, regardless of recent cutbacks. "The best thing you get out of a place like Pomona is learning how to explore different things, and the emphasis on holistic education is good for developing critical-thinking skills. I honestly believe I'm getting a superb value out of my education." As for the chocolate party, Appleton, a senior, laughs. "That was hard to give up."