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These colleges offer the very best financial aid packages

CNBC logo CNBC 8/10/2018 Jessica Dickler

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When it comes to choosing a college, the cost alone is one of the most important criteria for families. But crossing off a pricey private school could be a big mistake.

It's true that public schools charge less than half as much, on average. At public, four-year institutions, the cost for the 2017-18 school year was $20,770, according to the College Board. Tuition plus room and board at four-year private universities was much higher: $47,000, on average, in the last academic year.

However, about two-thirds of all full-time students at private colleges receive aid, which can bring the sticker price significantly down.

Your net price is a college's tuition and fees minus grants, scholarships and education tax benefits, according to the College Board.

To that end, The Princeton 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 students over a three-year period.

The schools that fared the best were all private schools, many of which have sky-high prices but very generous aid packages.

When it comes to offering aid, private schools typically have the financial wherewithal to make enrollment more affordable, said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review's editor-in-chief and author of "Colleges That Pay You Back."

To that end, "a school that has a lofty sticker cost could be a better value."

Here are the schools that made The Princeton Review's top 10:

10. Thomas Aquinas College

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Location: Santa Paula, California

Sticker price: $33,400

Average grant or scholarship: $13,585

Out-of-pocket cost: $19,815

This very small Catholic school outside of Los Angeles is not for every college-bound senior but, with a rolling campus, favorable student-to-teacher ratio and generous aid packages, it could be worth a look. The school funds 100 percent of demonstrated need for all students, first with an on-campus job and then with a grant that does not need to be repaid. Undergrads here are out of pocket just under $20,000 a year, on average – less than it would cost to attend a public college in many cases.

9. Williams College

The Symmes Gate on the campus of Williams College... © Provided by CNBC The Symmes Gate on the campus of Williams College...

Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts

Sticker price: $69,950

Average grant or scholarship: $51,773

Out-of-pocket cost: $18,177

One of the nation's very best schools also gets extremely high marks for its ability to finance its students' educations. The school meets 100 percent of demonstrated need for all undergrads for all four years. That makes one of the most expensive schools on the list also one of the most affordable.

8. Pomona College

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Location: Claremont, California

Sticker price: $67,225

Average grant or scholarship: $50,069

Out-of-pocket cost: $17,156

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

7. Yale University

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Location: New Haven, Connecticut

Sticker price: $64,650

Average grant or scholarship: $47,960

Out-of-pocket cost: $16,690

This Ivy puts its money where its mouth is: Committed to meeting 100 percent of each applicant's demonstrated need, Yale spends more than $100 million on student financial aid each year. As a result, more than 10 percent of the student body will have $0 expected parent contribution in 2018.

6. Princeton University

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Location: Princeton, New Jersey

Sticker price: $62,750

Average grant or scholarship: $51,365

Out-of-pocket cost: $11,385

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.

5. Washington University

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Location: St. Louis, Missouri

Sticker price: $69,839

Average grant or scholarship: $43,745

Out-of-pocket cost: $26,094

At first glance, Wash U. is another one of the pricier schools on Princeton Review's list but, like other institutions on this list, it is also committed to helping defray the cost without relying on loan debt. For starters, all aid to families earning $75,000 or less a year is grant-based, which means it does not have to be paid back.

4. Vassar College

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Location: Poughkeepsie, New York

Sticker price: $68,110

Average grant or scholarship: $48,194

Out-of-pocket cost: $19,916

Vassar is one of most expensive colleges in the country but also one of the most generous. The average scholarship is just over $48,000, making the total cost less than $20,000 for a top liberal arts school with a stunning campus.

3. Colgate University

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Location: Hamilton, New York

Sticker price: $67,500

Average grant or scholarship: $48,369

Out-of-pocket cost: $ 19,131

Students here have a healthy dose of school spirit, with good reason: Colgate is one of the best liberal arts schools in the country even though it has very high tuition. Still, students receive over $45,000 in grant aid, on average, making it a much more affordable place to matriculate.

2. Bowdoin College

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Location: Brunswick, Maine

Sticker price: $68,620

Average grant or scholarship: $44,824

Out-of-pocket cost: $ 23,796

At No. 2, this small college on the coast of Maine is a triple threat: highly competitive, picturesque and price-sensitive. The school's well-endowed grant budget, coupled with work study and other scholarship and grant opportunities means that more than half, or 52 percent, of enrolled students receive need-based aid.

1. Vanderbilt University

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Location: Nashville, Tennessee

Sticker price: $66,050

Average grant or scholarship: $47,294

Out-of-pocket cost: $18,756

In addition to gift assistance, Nashville's Vanderbilt is known for its three signature scholarships which all cover full tuition and offer summer stipends to study abroad, complete service projects or conduct research. And they are renewable for all four years of college, which is why this school lands at the top of the list.

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