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Don't Believe Princeton Review's Best Value College List

Today The Princeton Review released its annual list of the 100 Best Value Colleges for 2011.University of Virginia
You might assume that the 100 colleges represent America's best college bargains. There is a serious flaw, however, with this best college value list. It's the same problem that I highlighted on my college blog last year:

Plenty of the top colleges that The Princeton Review singles out for honors could also earn spots on a list of the nation's most expensive colleges and universities. Many of the students who end up attending these "best value" school will pay more than $200,000 for their degree. Hardly what I call a bargain.
Before I explain why the list is flawed, here are The Princeton Review's top 10 best value public colleges and top 10 best value private colleges.

Best Value Private Colleges

  1. Swarthmore College
  2. Duke University
  3. Princeton University
  4. California Institute of Technology
  5. Harvard College
  6. Wesleyan University
  7. Williams College
  8. Vanderbilt University
  9. Wesleyan College
  10. Yale University

Best Value Public Colleges

  1. University of Virginia
  2. New College of Florida
  3. University of Florida
  4. State University of New York at Binghamton
  5. University of Georgia
  6. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  7. College of William and Mary
  8. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  9. North Carolina State University
  10. Hunter College, CUNY

Misleading College Value Rankings

So why are these lists misleading?

It's because these schools will not be affordable for all students. Many of the private colleges on the list only award need-based financial aid. Consequently, wealthy students will not get any sort of price cut for attending a school like Swarthmore, Williams, Yale or Harvard.

A wealthy student, for instance, will pay $51,500 for tuition and room/board to attend Swarthmore, which is the No. 1 school on the list. It may very well be worth the price to rich parents, but I'd hardly call it a bargain.

This is the same problem that I have with the one-size-fits-all approach to compiling the best value state school list. While the University of Virginia is a deal for residents with a tuition of $10,626, this academic jewel is hardly a bargain for out-of-state residents who are charged nearly $33,000 in tuition. Some of the private universities on the list will give some out-of-state students a price cut, but many non-residents will pay exorbitant fees to attend these schools.

The Best Way to Evaluate College Costs

Luckily, a superior method of evaluating college prices is nearly here. Thanks to a federal mandate, colleges and universities across the country must install net price calculators on their websites by this fall. These net price calculators will provide a much better idea of what colleges will cost individual families.

College cost transparency -- now that's something to celebrate.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.
Best Value College image by SCholewiak. CC 2.0.
More on CBS MoneyWatch:
63 Colleges With the Best Financial Aid
4 Little-Known Ways to Cut the Cost of College
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