The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation's first public university, has long been known as one of the best bargains for a competitive school. Among the strongest departments at UNC are biology and other sciences, traditional liberal arts such as religious studies, and journalism. The school is tough to get into, only admitting about 20% of applicants to join its roughly 20,000-person undergraduate student body. (Out-of-state applicants face even longer odds.)

UNC has a high graduation rate of 90%. Of more than 700 schools on Money’s list, UNC ranks in the top three for affordability: For in-state students, the estimated net price of a degree comes in at a little over $86,000. And that’s before looking at federal and state financial aid.

Sports play a big role on campus: Basketball games are typically sold out, especially when the Tar Heels face Duke, their fiercest rival. The Tar Heels are regular contenders in the annual March Madness tournament, but basketball is hardly the university's most successful sport. The women's soccer team has more than 20 NCAA titles.

When they aren't studying or cheering, students have access to hundreds of on-campus clubs as well as the college town's many nightclubs and restaurants — including Al's Burger Shack, home to what TripAdvisor once named the best cheeseburger in America. The student body loves tradition, like having a drink from the Old Well to ensure good grades or signing their names inside the bell tower.