15 Best-in-Class Colleges and What They Cost

Test prep company The Princeton Review has released its annual list of college rankings, highlighting the best 377 schools across 62 categories.

Some of these categories are less than helpful, like “Reefer Madness” and “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians.” But others can be serious factors in picking a college. Below are the top names in 15 categories, along with some background and estimated annual price tags that we’ve added.

The price tags come from the National Center for Education Statistics and are based on published costs for in-state, on-campus students. But as we explain in 5 Steps to Dramatically Reduce the Cost of College, financial aid can bring that sticker price way down. To find out what you would pay at any college, check out the net price calculator.

1. Best Financial Aid

Princeton University (Princeton, N.J.)

A medium-sized private school that offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. “In 2001, Princeton became the first university to offer every aid recipient a financial aid package that replaces loans with grant aid (scholarships) that students do not pay back,” says Princeton’s financial aid page. “Since then, Princeton has been able to enroll growing numbers of students from low- and middle-income backgrounds with the grant aid they need to make our costs affordable.”

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $53,934

2. Most Satisfying School

Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA)

A small private liberal arts school offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The college told U.S. News and World Report it “educates its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in economics, government and public affairs” and “attracts students who approach education pragmatically and who intend to make a difference in the world.”

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $57,865

3. Most Beautiful Campus

Florida Southern College (Lakeland, FL)

A medium-sized private liberal arts school offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. On its beauty, FSC says:

In addition to the world’s largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures, the campus also boasts historic architecture from 1922, when the College moved to Lakeland, as well as contemporary designs by world-renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

From formal rose gardens to working citrus groves to environmentally sustainable native plant areas, the 100-acre campus on the shores of Lake Hollingsworth offers a wealth of natural oases and tropical retreats.

Check out the virtual photo tour.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $37,400

4. Best-Administered College

Elon University (Elon, N.C.)

A medium-sized private school offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. It’s hard to nail down evidence of this recognition, but here’s part of a student review from U.S. News and World Report: “Administration is absolutely wonderful (note I do not work for the school). We have this thing called college coffee where the whole admin comes out to talk to the students. If there is something that could be better or there’s a problem they will take care of it. They also have no compunction about throwing money into student events. Dr. Lambert (President) is also one of the nicest people in the world.”

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $40,471

5. Best Career Services

Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)

This large private university offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees has three employers-in-residence: Peace Corps, Shawmut Design and Construction, and Raytheon, “a technology and innovation leader specializing in defense, homeland security and other government markets throughout the world.” Those employers have on-campus representatives to help with resumes, talk about job opportunities, and offer industry advice and career guidance. There’s also a six-month, full-time co-op program (job experience taken between semesters) in various industries.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $43,302

6. Best Campus Food

Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine)

A small private liberal arts school offering bachelor’s degrees. The school has a food blog and posts menus for the coming week, with a dozen or more entrees available between its two dining halls on most days. There’s also a bar and grill, café, and convenience store.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $56,540

7. Best College Dorms

Washington University (St. Louis, Mo.)

A medium-sized private university offering certificates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Their residential area is 40 acres, “home to about 3,200 residents in 24 residence halls, as well as recreational space, computer clusters, campus eateries, and much, much more.” It’s basically a town unto itself, with social spaces and student-run businesses.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $58,901

8. Happiest Students

Rice University (Houston, Texas)

This medium-sized private university offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees took this honor last year too. The university’s write-up of the recognition includes this line: “Students cite the ‘Hogwarts style’ residential college system as being key to this ‘geek chic’ school.” The long-running twice-a-month tradition to run around naked in shaving cream probably raises spirits too.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $50,171

9. LGBT-Friendly

Emerson College (Boston, Mass.)

This medium-sized private school offering certificates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees has long been LGBT-friendly: Wikipedia says it extended health care benefits to the partners of lesbian and gay faculty in the mid-90s. And its website explains how to change your name and gender in academic records.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $48,533

10. Most Religious Students

Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah)

This large private university offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees is run by the Mormon church, and almost all of its students are church members. “The mission of Brigham Young University – founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – is to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life,” says the school’s website. “That assistance should provide a period of intensive learning in a stimulating setting where a commitment to excellence is expected and the full realization of human potential is pursued.”

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $16,588

11. Best Town-Gown Relations

Clemson University (Clemson, S.C.)

This large public university in a rural setting offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The school is a founding member of the International Town and Gown Association and its website explains, “City and university collaborations for fire protection, transit service, joint marketing initiatives, student involvement and other projects have provided service and economic benefits for both partners as well as a high-quality living and learning environment for all.”

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $26,626

12. Top Stone-Cold Sober School

Brigham Young University (Provo, UT)

See No. 10. Mormon doctrine prohibits drinking alcohol, coffee, or tea.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $16,588

13. Top Party School

West Virginia University (Morgantown, W.V.)

This large public university in a small city offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Relatedly, it also won the “Lots of Beer” category. As ABC News reported after the fall 2012 semester started, “Police announced they issued 100 citations for underage drinking between Friday and Sunday, the move-in weekend for the semester that started Monday. They also issued 39 open container violations and cited 11 people for ‘nuisance parties’ as police stepped up neighborhood patrols.” The students also like to set things on fire. “The record is 274 fires set in 2003,” ABC says.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $16,874

14. Students Pack the Stadium

University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.)

A medium-sized private suburban school offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Its stadium has 80,795 seats – and has sold out for 206 consecutive games, according to its site.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: $55,257

15. Best Athletic Facilities

U.S. Military Academy (West Point, N.Y.)

This medium-sized public military college in a rural setting offers bachelor’s degrees. Every cadet is required to participate in a competitive sport, and it offers a lengthy list of facilities.

2011-12 total estimated price without financial aid: Covered by five-year military commitment

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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