The top 10 colleges for financial aid

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College Game Plan

The top 10 colleges for financial aid

Students walking on a college campus
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With college costs rising, simply paying the tab is a serious problem when it comes to 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.

The top concern parents and students said they now share is the amount of debt they are about to take on to pay for a degree, according to The Princeton Review.

To that end, the college-ranking site compiled a list of the best schools in terms of how much financial aid is awarded and how satisfied students are with their packages.

"Some schools that are heart-stoppingly expensive are bringing it down to what they are likely going to pay for a state university," said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief. The report is based on survey data from 137,000 students.

These schools are doing "a herculean task of making college affordable for the average student and family," he said. Here are the best of the best:

10. 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
Tuition, fees, room and board: $63,020
Average freshman scholarship: $19,200
Out-of-pocket cost: $43,820

In the heart of New York City is a school devoted to providing an affordable education. At Cooper Union, all students receive a half-tuition scholarship worth nearly $20,000 a year and additional financial aid is available to help cover housing, food, books and supplies.

9. University of Wisconsin-Madison

An outside view of Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Getty Images
An outside view of Bascom Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Tuition, fees, room and board: $22,200 (in-state), $33,900 (out-of-state)
Average freshman scholarship: $10,900
Out of pocket cost: $11,300 (in-state), $23,000 (out-of-state)

At one of the country's top public schools, the nearly 30,000 undergraduate students pay just more than $10,000 for in-state tuition, and the average need-based scholarship or grant award covers the complete tab, leaving just the cost for room and board as well as other expenses.

8. Stanford University

Stanford University
Al Seib | Getty Images
Stanford University

Location: Stanford, California
Tuition, fees, room and board: $64,000
Average freshman scholarship: $43,300
Out-of-pocket cost: $20,700

As one of the country's top schools, Stanford also offers one of the best regarded financial aid programs. According to the university, it is committed to meeting the full demonstrated need, without loans, for every admitted undergrad who qualifies for financial assistance.

7. Princeton University

People walk on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey.
Craig Warga | Bloomberg via Getty Images
People walk on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey.

Location: Princeton, New Jersey
Tuition, fees, room and board: $61,150
Average freshman scholarship: $49,900
Out-of-pocket cost: $11,250

This elite Ivy League institution 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 nearly $50,000 — making the total cost just more than $11,000. "It's been a pioneer in this area," Franek said.

6. Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas Aquinas College in the Topatopa Mountains near Santa Paula, California.
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
Thomas Aquinas College in the Topatopa Mountains near Santa Paula, California.

Location: Santa Paula, California
Tuition, fees, room and board: $32,500
Average freshman scholarship: $14,500
Out-of-pocket cost: $18,000

This small Catholic school is doing big things to combat student debt. To bridge the gap between what students are able to pay and the actual cost of their education, there's a substantial financial aid program, comprised of loans, work-study and grants, which is fully funded by contributions from private individuals and charitable foundations.

5. Vassar College

Source: Vassar College

Location: Poughkeepsie, New York
Tuition, fees, room and board: $64,200
Average freshman scholarship: $45,300
Out-of-pocket cost: $18,900

Vassar is one of most expensive colleges in the country but also one of the most generous. The average scholarship is $45,300, making the total cost under $20,000. "They have the financial wherewithal to make a $60,000-plus tuition affordable for those that need it," Franek said.

4. St. Olaf College

Old Main Hall, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota
Source: Jonathunder | Wikimedia Commons
Old Main Hall, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota

Location: Northfield, Minnesota
Tuition, fees, room and board: $54,360
Average freshman scholarship: $33,000
Out-of-pocket cost: $21,360

At this small private school just south of Minneapolis, a whopping 92 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid and nearly a quarter, or 23 percent, of that figure is made up of undergrads who are relying strictly on merit scholarships, which do not have to be paid back.

3. Colgate University

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

Location: Hamilton, New York
Tuition, fees, room and board: $64,900
Average freshman scholarship: $49,000
Out-of-pocket cost: $15,900

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, its students receive $49,000 in grant aid, on average, according to Franek. "That makes it much more palatable."

2. Vanderbilt University

General view of the Benson Science Hall on the campus of the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, Tennessee.
Vanderbilt | Collegiate Images | Getty Images
General view of the Benson Science Hall on the campus of the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, Tennessee.

Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Tuition, fees, room and board: $60,600
Average freshman scholarship: $40,300
Out-of-pocket cost: $20,300

In addition to gift assistance, Vanderbilt offers several different types scholarships to freshman applicants, which guarantee full-tuition plus summer stipends to study abroad or complete research or service projects. They are also renewable for all four years of college.

1. Bowdoin College

Joshua Chamberlain statue at the entrance to the Bowdoin campus in Brunswick, Maine.
Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images
Joshua Chamberlain statue at the entrance to the Bowdoin campus in Brunswick, Maine.

Location: Brunswick, Maine
Tuition, fees, room and board: $64,340
Average freshman scholarship: $42,000
Out-of-pocket cost: $22,340

This small college on the coast of Maine is leading the way in college affordability. Nearly half of enrolled students receive grant assistance from Bowdoin and the school also has a strict no-loan policy, which means it has successfully eliminated student loans from its financial aid packages.