USA TODAY - Their tuition sticker prices may look daunting, but many of the nation's most selective colleges and universities are producing graduates with student loan debt below national averages, according to affordability data from The Princeton Review released Tuesday.
Advice to families beginning the college search: Don't screen schools based on published tuition prices. And many students can get thousands of dollars - even tens of thousands of dollars - in grants that don't have to be paid back.
"College-bound students and their families are understandably scared about paying for college, but a lot of people never make it past the sticker price," says Robert Franek, senior vice president of The Princeton Review, a New York-based education services company that is not affiliated with Princeton University. "It's such an avoidable mistake."
MORE: 2013 Princeton Review 150 Best Value Colleges
Today, the company released its 2013 Best Value Colleges, a list of 150 schools - 75 public and 75 private - that it says offer the best bang for the buck. Detailed information on the schools is also published on USA TODAY's website.
The schools, drawn from 650 colleges based on admissions, cost and financial aid data for the 2011-12 school year, are demanding academically. On average, they admitted fewer than half of applicants.
Their total annual cost of attendance, including tuition and fees, room and board and books and supplies, averaged $19,500 for freshmen attending public universities in their home state, and $54,200 for those going to private schools. When freshman grants, including state, federal and institutional aid, are factored into the cost, the final tab drops to $10,600 at public universities and $21,700 at private universities.
Nationally, the cost of attendance in 2011-12 after grants averaged $13,450 for undergraduates at public universities in their state and $25,000 for those at private universities, according to the College Board's annual survey of colleges.
Fewer than half of students at Best Value Colleges took out loans as undergrads, and median debts reported by public and private Best Value Colleges for their graduating classes of 2011 were lower than national averages.(The national data set did not have medians, only averages.) Moreover, private universities on The Princeton Review's list posted lower median indebtedness, $20,556, than public universities, $21,373. Private university students among this group also were more likely to graduate in four years.
Nationally, two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average debt of $23,065 for students at public and $29,059 for students at private universities, according to an analysis of federal data by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success, based in California.
A word about data: Three Best Value colleges have acknowledged providing inaccurate data in past years to publishers, such as The Princeton Review, who compile national rankings. Information in this year's Best Value Colleges guide for those schools - Scripps College, Emory University and Claremont McKenna College (which ranks ninth among private colleges) - is based on data the schools say are accurate. Bucknell University last month disclosed it had inflated students' average SAT scores over the past several years, but that information did not affect their designation as a Best Value College, The Princeton Review has confirmed.
Among sometimes overlooked factors that can ratchet up the final tab:
•Students who change majors or transfer schools add about a year to their studies and graduate with more debt, say Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. His analysis of 2009 federal data found that the average debt at graduation was $24,408 for undergraduates who never changed their major, $25,546 for those who changed their major one time and $26,108 for those who changed their major more than one time.
•Parents may want to weigh the consequences of helping to pay for their child's education. A study published this month in the American Sociological Review found that students who received $12,000 from their parents in their first year of college were more likely to complete their degree - but they also were more likely to get lower grades. Author Laura Hamilton, a professor at the University of California-Merced, encourages parents to set minimum academic standards for their kids.
•Colleges typically include books and supplies as part of their cost of attendance, but meaningful estimates are hard to nail down, says Nicole Allen, who heads an affordable textbooks campaign for the non-profit Student Public Interest Research Groups. For example, prices for college textbooks increased 37% from August 2007 to August 2012, the consumer price index shows. But many students - and many colleges - are finding cheaper options, such as renting, using electronic versions or buying used books.