Kiplinger has come out with their latest 2011 best values for a college education, an online report, considering both public and private four year schools. Value is determined by Kiplinger as two-thirds by quality (as determined by student-faculty ratio, admission rate, graduation rate, and admissions selectivity) and one third by affordability (as determined by net cost after financial aid). There are even tools to select from among the top schools and compare by state for both public and private schools.
Value is in the eyes of the beholder, obviously, but this list is a good conversation starter for those schools that may have not been on your radar. It also may make you reconsider how you look at the cost side of the value equation - that is, are you placing too great an emphasis on the full cost of tuition, and not on net tuition after financial aid, or the quality of the education received?
One factor that is often overlooked in initially evaluating schools is that private schools can provide a much bigger financial aid package (especially for academic achievers and lower income families), potentially offsetting the higher tuition and changing the value proposition. For example, the College Board data indicates that the average cost of a year at a four-year private school is about $36,000, but the net price after financial aid puts the average closer to $22,000 (OK - still big). Always fully explore both public and private schools, especially if you believe a need-based or academic scholarship is in your future.
While the economic value of a college education for the average person is clear, it varies greatly by the type of degree earned and major. You also need to factor in the impact of potential unemployment on your long-term financial situation as well, since college graduates tend to have lower unemployment rates (though also differing greatly by major). Again, your major matters.
One useful tool to compare value for yourself based on specific information for an individual (financial aid package offered compared with a school's tuition and fees) is TuitionCoach, a subscription-based tool to guide you through the financial aid process and evaluate competing financial aid offers. There is also a "lite" version to give you an idea of how it works.
First, relax...it will be okay...eventually...
I know, it all sounds impossible. But more people are going to college than ever. And while many of them are accumulating debt faster than Congress, you can still get through this without an impossible financial burden. Just remember, that there will likely be no single source of money, you will have to be realistic on selecting the right school, and your major means everything. So, relax and start the journey, one step at a time...