FROM TIME to time, various listings and guides rank the colleges by tuition and the cost of a year's education. It's generally pretty depressing, especially for the parents of children in their last years of high school. Most of the attention generally goes to the top of the list, a position currently occupied by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where tuition and fees now run $8,700 a year, and the total cost for a resident undergraduate is around $13,500. But it's more interesting to look down the list for those institutions that maintain superior standards while managing, somehow, to keep the price down.

The leader in that more difficult test, among the large universities, is the University of North Carolina. Tuition and fees there come to $702 this year for local students. (Those who are not fortunate enough to be North Carolina residents are charged a less unusual $2,260.) Including living expenses and all, a resident student can typically get through the year on $3,800. Throughout the country, on the average, college costs in both public and private institutions have been rising at just about the rate of inflation, which is to say that in the past four years, they have gone up by nearly half. At the University of North Carolina, they have gone up by less than a third. Why does the student pay less? Because the state pays more.

Public education is a creed and a passion in North Carolina. The people of the state make it a point of pride not only to run a university that is manifestly one of the finest in the country, but to keep its doors open to students who haven't much money. North Carolina is not a rich state, but it has clear ideas about priorities.

Here in Washington, there is much urgent talk about the need to strengthen the national economy and the country's technological base. That talk usually drifts eventually toward tax gimmicks to push companies into more industrial research. How about investing that money, instead, in the people who are going to be running the companies and doing the research?

Congress, so far, has done a fairly effective job of protecting the student-aid programs from the administration's budget-cutters. But much of that aid is delivered in the form of loans, which means that young people emerge from four years of college with substantial burdens of debt. As public policy, that practice grows more questionable as the tuitions, and the debts, grow larger. A more useful and elevated example can be found in North Carolina, where the state keeps the threshold costs low and collects its interest in the broad benefits of a rising level of education.