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'Best value' colleges list is out; did your alma mater make it?

According to a new study, more than 26 million people are in debt after going to college. To offset the cost of higher education, the Princeton Review and USA Today took a closer look at the schools that will give you the most bang for your buck. Rob Franek of the Princeton Review discusses their findings.

When it comes to college, cheap doesn't mean easy. Students and parents looking for the best degree for their buck can find some great ideas in the newly released Princeton Review Best Value Colleges for 2013.

Most of them are colleges which say they "meet 100 percent of need." You say what you can pay, and the school covers the difference. The trick is having the high grades and test scores needed to get in.

In compiling the list, what the Princeton Review looked for is those schools that provided a "good value, but weren't making families mortgage their futures," Robert Franek, Senior VP of Publishing and author of The Princeton Review's "The Best Value Colleges," told TODAY.

The company winnowed down to 150 schools, 75 public and 75 private, from the 650 the company considers the nation's academically best undergraduate institutions. Those schools were selected from the 2,000 from which the Princeton Review annually gathers data.

The colleges were evaluated on 30 different factors, including selectivity, test scores, scholarships, grants, number of student loans, and the amount of debt graduating students carried. The bulk of the data that went into compiling the results came from self-reported statistics provided by the colleges. A smaller component was a measurement of student satisfaction with their financial aid packages, determined by asking respondents to evaluate several factors on a five-point scale.

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However, critics question the rigor of the aspect of Princeton Review's research that is based on student surveys.  The Princeton Reviews says the polls can be completed online "anywhere, anytime." In some cases, invitations to take the survey are emailed by the college to their student body.

The Princeton Review's use of student surveys, "is highly susceptible to self-reporting bias," said Jonathan Robe, Research Fellow at The Center for College Affordability & Productivity, which produces its own annual college rankings. "It's not an actual scientific sample. All its really measuring is 'of the students who report data.' Which may not be a representative sample for a prospective student. That's the methodology problem."

Colleges do not pay the Princeton Review to be included on the list, said David Soto, director of content development. Survey results are normally collected every three years, and colleges can request more frequent polling, but they're not assessed a fee, said Soto.

What really helped schools jump to the top of the Best Value list were those that meet 100 percent of students need. These schools will let the students pay what they can pay based on their FAFSA filling, and the college makes up the rest.

"These schools are love letters when it comes to students and financial aid," said Franek. So, "never cross an expensive school off your list just because it's 'expensive."

That said, "You have to get into these schools first," said Franek. "Some of them have 6,7,8% admissions rate." To gain admission, he said, the schools, "look at two levers: GPA and SAT scores. You need to do well in both," and, "start as early as possible."

 The Princeton Review's "Top 10 Best Value Public Colleges for 2013"

1. University of Virginia (Charlottesville)

2. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

3. New College of Florida (Sarasota)

4. College of William & Mary (Williamsburg VA)

5. Univ. of California - Los Angeles

6. North Carolina State University (Raleigh)

7. University of Wisconsin (Madison)

8. State University of New York at Binghamton

9. University of Michigan - Ann Arbor

10. University of Georgia (Athens)

The Princeton Review's "Top 10 Best Value Private Colleges for 2013"

1. Swarthmore College (Swarthmore PA)

2. Harvard College (Cambridge MA)

3. Williams College (Williamstown MA)

4. Princeton University (Princeton NJ)

5. Pomona College (Claremont CA)

6. Yale University (New Haven CT)

7. Rice University (Houston TX)

8. Hamilton College (Clinton NY)

9. Claremont McKenna College (Claremont CA)

10. Grinnell College (Grinnell IA)