by Kim Clark

Best Value Colleges Give Big Scholarships, Deep Discounts: Many Harvard students pay under $15,000 a year. An Oklahoma college costs $8,000

Don't be freaked out by the $50,000-plus annual price tags of Harvard, Princeton, or Amherst. For a growing number of colleges, a majority of students pay far less than those jaw-dropping sticker prices.

U.S. News analyzed the scholarships and financial aid of the nation's top 1,800 colleges and found dozens of colleges where students have good chances of paying less than $20,000 a year out of their own pockets for all their college expenses: tuition, room, board, books and travel.

One of the most remarkable bargains can be found at Yale, one of the nation's top-rated universities. There, the average price paid by the 54 percent of students who qualified for the school's need-based financial aid was about $13,600 last year. Yale charges on a sliding scale; anyone from a family earning below $60,000 generally gets about $50,000 in grants, and is expected to contribute just $2,600 or so from summer and campus earnings. Those from families earning up to about $200,000 typically get enough scholarships to make sure their families pay no more than 10 percent of their income each year. The 46 percent of last year's Yale students who came from wealthy families paid the full cost of attendance, which will total roughly $53,000 for the 2010-11 academic year.

Similar deals are found at other top colleges with generous financial aid programs.

"You shouldn't be scared off by the sticker price," says Robin Moscato, director of financial aid at Princeton, where nearly 60 percent of students receive, on average, a 69 percent discount off of that school's $52,000 official total cost of attendance. Princeton and a growing number of other schools are now posting Web estimators that allow students and parents to get an early guess of what their true prices will likely be. A new federal law requires all colleges to provide net price calculators by Oct. 29, 2011.

It's not just the big-name schools that are offering generous aid. Some lesser-known schools are trying to attract applicants by offering scholarships to nearly every admitted student. Ripon College in Wisconsin reports offering need-based grants to 84 percent of its students. It also offers merit scholarships, based on good grades or special talents, to most other students. Only about 2 percent of its students paid last year's advertised cost of attendance of $35,000. The rest paid, on average, only about half of that, thanks to scholarships. (Each student's price depended on his or her qualifications and family finances.)

Students can't assume that colleges that were generous last year will remain so in the future, however. Colleges need tuition money to pay professors' salaries, utility bills, and the like, so they can't necessarily afford to give lots of big scholarships. Steve Schuetz, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Ripon, says his college's scholarships have drawn enough applicants to Ripon that he hopes to rein in the discounts for future incoming freshmen.

The college with the lowest after-scholarship price in the U.S. News list of best value colleges -- the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma -- charged academically and financially qualified out-of-state students just $8,000 (on average) last year.

Of course, saving a few thousand dollars on tuition is no bargain if the college isn't a good fit and the student drops out. College graduates typically earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their lifetimes than do those without degrees. The Oklahoma college, for example, is in the midst of an effort to improve its academics and student performance, and has posted recent increases in the percentage of freshmen who return for sophomore year, an important indicator of quality. But the latest data show that about 30 percent of students who entered as freshmen in 2003 graduated within six years.

The graduation rate statistics vary at other colleges on the best values list as well.

At Aquinas College in Michigan, more than 80 percent of students received grants that reduced their net costs to slightly more than $12,000. Half of Aquinas freshmen graduated within six years. At Amherst, one of the top-rated liberal arts colleges, the 57 percent of students who received aid paid, on average, just over $13,000 last year. Fully 95 percent of Amherst students graduate within six years.

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Best Value Colleges Give Big Scholarships & Deep Discounts