Our annual rankings of the best values in private colleges and universities (kiplinger.com/links/privatecolleges) highlight some interesting trends -- one of which is that private four-year schools are pumping the brakes on tuition increases. This year, private institutions raised tuition by an average of 3.56 percent, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. That's the lowest increase in four decades.

Run your finger down the total cost column of our rankings of the best values in private universities and you'll see price tags ranging from nearly $50,000 to more than $60,000. That is, until you reach Elon University, at number 22. The total cost is $40,946. Unlike many of the schools on our list, this private university in North Carolina uses a "low tuition, low discount" cost model. That means what you see in terms of sticker price is more or less what you get.

The reason? The school wants to entice students who are waffling between Elon and the top-notch public flagship universities in the region, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (last year's number-one public college in Kiplinger's rankings), the University of Virginia (number two) and the University of Maryland (number five).

In order to keep prices low without leaving academics in the dust, Elon is a "lean, mean place," says President Leo Lambert. The school gives priority to funding academics, study-abroad scholarships and need-based aid. It eliminates overlaps in staffing and takes a preventive approach to campus maintenance work.

But keeping prices low is a balancing act, and a lower sticker price is matched by less-generous financial aid. Right now, average need-based aid is $13,628 -- $10,000 to $20,000 lower than the aid packages offered by its private university peers. The net price is $27,318, matching the net price of private universities in our rankings. Lambert says that need-based aid will grow: Elon aims to double it by 2020. Meanwhile, the low sticker price appeals to families who don't expect to qualify for aid.

Other standouts include two midwestern liberal arts colleges: Grinnell College (number ten), in Grinnell, Iowa, and Carleton College (number 12), in Northfield, Minn. Both jumped seven spots this year.

Grinnell owes its bump to stronger academics. A 36-percent admissions rate blows last year's 50 percent out of the water. Improved graduation and retention rates, plus higher test scores among incoming freshmen, give it an extra lift. Carleton College boosted its graduation rates and lowered the average amount of debt that students carry at graduation.

(Susannah Snider is a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)

(c) 2013 Kiplinger's Personal Finance