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Top colleges for financial aid

Pomona College
Ted Soqui | Corbis | Getty Images
Pomona College

With college costs steadily rising, simply paying the tab is a serious concern when picking a school.

At public four-year institutions, costs for the 2015–16 school year rose to $19,548 from $16,178 five years ago, according to the College Board. Tuition plus room and board at four-year private universities was much higher: $43,921 on average.

As a result, families are relying on loans, scholarships and grants more than ever before. But as student loan debt hits record levels, stunting the financial independence of many millennials, maximizing aid in the form of scholarships and grants, which does not have to be paid back, is critical.

To that end, ThePrinceton Review ranked colleges by how much financial aid is awarded and how satisfied students are with their packages. The report is based on data collected from fall 2015 through fall 2016.

Surprisingly, the schools that fared the best were all private schools, many of which have sky-high prices, but their very generous aid packages bring the total cost way down.

"Don't base your decision on sticker price alone," said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief and author of "Colleges That Pay You Back." When it comes to offering financial aid, private schools typically have more money to spend, he said. "A private school might end up being more affordable than a typical public college in your state."

Here are the schools that made The Princeton Review's top five:

5. Haverford College

Haverford College
Source: Michael Branscom
Haverford College

Location: Haverford, Pa.

Tuition, fees, room and board: $66,500

This small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia is making big waves with its financial aid, offering scholarships worth $45,390, on average, to students in need. The school jumped four spots to round out this year's top five thanks to being "really, really aggressive about being a student advocate and putting dollars toward student scholarships," Franek said.

4. Colgate University

Colgate University, with Taylor Lake in the foreground, is shown in Hamilton, N.Y.
Wikimedia Commons
Colgate University, with Taylor Lake in the foreground, is shown in Hamilton, N.Y.

Location: Hamilton, N.Y.

Tuition, fees, room and board: $65,030

Students here have a healthy dose of school spirit, with good reason: Colgate is one of the best schools in the country even though it has a sticker price to match. Still, their students receive $49,442 in grant aid, on average, according to Franek. "That makes it much more palatable."

3. Princeton University

Princeton University campus lawn
Source: Princeton University
Princeton University campus lawn

Location: Princeton, N.J.

Tuition, fees, room and board: $60,530

This elite Ivy League school makes the top of many college lists, but it's also highly regarded for its war on student debt. Princeton has eliminated all loans for students who qualify for aid. Instead, awards come in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid and the average scholarship is $44,890 — making the total cost just $15,640.

"It's been a pioneer in this area," Franek said.

2. Vassar College

Vassar College
prichman38 | Flickr
Vassar College

Location: Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Tuition, fees, room and board: $63,280

Vassar is one of most expensive colleges in the country but also one of the most generous. The average scholarship is $41,100, making the total cost just over $20,000. "They have the financial wherewithal to make a $60,000-plus tuition affordable for those that need it," Franek said.

1. Pomona College

Pomona College
Ted Soqui | Corbis | Getty Images
Pomona College

Location: Claremont, Calif.

Tuition, fees, room and board: $62,700

At the top of this year's list is a member of the Claremont Colleges, a group of highly regarded schools just outside of Los Angeles. Admission to Pomona is tough but need-blind. The goal is to achieve "significant socio-economic diversity," according to Adam Sapp, Pomona's senior associate dean and director of admissions.

"College affordability is a national issue, and the trustees have affirmed again and again that a commitment to the financial aid model is absolutely our first priority," Sapp said.