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The 10 best colleges in America

Graduating Stanford University students are shown before the start of the 123rd Stanford commencement ceremony, June 15, 2014, in Stanford, Calif.
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Graduating Stanford University students are shown before the start of the 123rd Stanford commencement ceremony, June 15, 2014, in Stanford, Calif.

Choosing a college is one of the most important financial decisions families ever have to face. Not only does it represent a huge up-front expense — one year at an "affordable" public university can easily set you back $20,000 a year — but where you go to college can also affect your salary for years to come.

To help families make smart choices, MONEY's annual college rankings examine dozens of data points to measure the costs and payoffs of thousands of schools. Colleges are judged on how much families really pay after financial aid, how many students go on to graduate, and how well those graduates fare in the workplace according to salary data collected by PayScale.com.

MONEY's 2016 Best Colleges list, released today, offers a mix of public and private, large and small, uber-selective and lesser-known gems. All 705 of the colleges on the list (chosen from the roughly 2,000 four-year colleges in the U.S.) provide an above-average value for students' and parents' money.

Here's a peek at some of this year's highest-ranked colleges. For the full list, check out MONEY's College Planner.

10. Stanford University

Source: Leah Fasten

Location: Stanford, Calif.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $65,300

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $22,000

Average student debt: $12,224

Early career earnings: $68,800

Stanford isn't one of the eight members of the elite Ivy League, but the university would fit right in. It's the hardest school in the country to get into and has generous financial aid policies much like Princeton and Harvard. But here's a key difference: Recent Stanford graduates report average annual salaries that are $8,000 higher than those of Ivy League grads.

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9. University of Virginia

University of Virginia
Source: University of Virginia
University of Virginia

Location: Charlottesville, Va.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $28,100

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $12,000

Average student debt: $19,500

Early career earnings: $55,400

UVA boasts the highest graduation rate of any public university in the country, at 93%. The university's academic strengths are wide-ranging, and the campus is the only U.S. college to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its connection to founder Thomas Jefferson.

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8. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Source: Cooper Union
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

Location: New York City

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $62,800

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $22,200

Average student debt: $17,570

Early career earnings: $63,200

Cooper Union is unique — a small, urban school that offers degrees only in art, architecture, and engineering. Though Cooper Union no longer has the free tuition policy it was founded with, it's still much more affordable than other elite private colleges.

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7. Amherst College

Amherst College
Source: Amherst College
Amherst College

Location: Amherst, Mass.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $66,600

Estimated price for 2016-17 with aid: $18,000

Average student debt: $11,186

Early career earnings: $53,400

An elite liberal arts college, Amherst is one of a small group of schools that will meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of students. As a result, more than two-thirds of its students graduate without taking out loans.

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5. Brigham Young University-Provo (tie)

Brigham Young University
Source: Brigham Young University
Brigham Young University

Location: Provo, Utah

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $18,500

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $14,700

Average student debt: $11,000

Early career earnings: $51,800

BYU-Provo is the main campus of a private college system specializing in educating members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsthe Church of Latter-day Saints. Non-Mormons can attend, but they are charged more for tuition and must obey the school's strict code of conduct. The university has a high graduation rate, competitive salaries for recent graduates, and a very affordable price for a private education.

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5. University of California-Berkeley (tie)

University of California Berkeley football game
Source: University of California Berkeley
University of California Berkeley football game

Location: Berkeley, Calif.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $35,700

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $25,300

Average student debt: $14,667

Early career earnings: $60,300

UC-Berkeley, or Cal for short, ranks the highest of eight University of California system schools that made MONEY's rankings. In fact, Cal is one of the most selective public colleges in the country. More than 90% of freshmen graduate within six years, a rate well above even other elite public universities.

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4. Rice University

Rice University
Source: Rice University
Rice University

Location: Houston, Texas

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $58,600

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $24,300

Average student debt: $8,413

Early career earnings: $63,700

The typical Rice student majors in engineering, economics, or biology, and the university is also well known in the field of political science. Graduates of the selective private school fare well in the workforce: Recent grads out-earn their peers from similar schools by 16%, according to salary data from Payscale.com.

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3. Harvard University

Harvard University football team during a game.
Source: Harvard University
Harvard University football team during a game.

Location: Cambridge, Mass.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $64,800

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $18,900

Average student debt: $19,500

Early career earnings: $54,500

Harvard may be the most recognizable college in the world, and it's practically synonymous with the prestigious Ivy League. Like many of its peers, Harvard excels in MONEY's rankings not only because of the outstanding education it provides but also thanks to its generous financial aid program.

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2. University of Michigan

University of Michigan
Source: University of Michigan
University of Michigan

Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $28,100

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $14,300

Average student debt: $22,000

Early career earnings: $59,000

The University of Michigan accepts less than a third of the nearly 50,000 students who apply annually, and the university is nearly as popular with out-of-staters as with Michiganders. State residents who do get in enjoy an especially good deal: Michigan is one of only 11 colleges in MONEY's top 50 where the average in-state cost of a degree totals less than $100,000.

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1. Princeton University

Princeton University
Source: Princeton University
Princeton University

Location: Princeton, N.J.

Estimated price for 2016-17 without aid: $61,300

Estimated price for 2016-17 with average aid: $20,100

Average student debt: $6,810

Early career earnings: $62,800

Princeton University's generous financial aid makes it, according to MONEY's analysis, the most affordable member of the Ivy League. The school gives out such large grants to the six in 10 families who qualify (families earning less than $250,000 generally get some aid) that more than 83% of students graduate without any debt.

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For the full list, check out MONEY's College Planner.