With STEM degrees and with physics undergraduate degrees in particular I'd be a little wary of the large research institutions. As an example Cal (UC Berkeley) is the top rated graduate school in chemistry but I sure wouldn't send my kids there as undergraduates with the 500 person classrooms taught by grad students with three weeks of training.chemprof:
There are a few top notch undergraduate-centered places (Harvey Mudd leaps to mind) but failing getting into there I think there's a lot to be said for finding a strong 2nd tier liberal arts college with one or two solid STEM departments that are actually doing some research as well as teaching. Strong students get lots of attention and opportunities as well as stronger and more personal letters of recommendation.
I was one of those chem grad students at Cal, and we got two days of training. But yeah, for STEM and given the current economic environment, I'd suggest looking at second tier liberal arts colleges and see what scholarship money was out there, as well as which departments have a strong history. It does take a little more searching, but there are some gems. I used to think it was a problem to be the big fish in a little pond, but at least for now, that seems to be a good strategy for students.from Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities (pdf file):
Liberal arts colleges have produced disproportionate numbers of career scientists, as the surveys conducted by Oberlin and Franklin & Marshall Colleges have shown over the years. This fact alone ought to be grounds for enormous federal investment in small colleges. What has not been as obvious has been the role of less well known liberal arts colleges in meeting the national need for scientists. For example, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania has a biology department that in 1985 consisted of six faculty members and 73 majors. Now it has nine faculty members and 195 majors. Elon University in North Carolina has steadily increased the number of mathematics majors, with two (of 10) majors going to graduate school in math in the year 2000, three (of nine) going to graduate school in 2001, four (of 12) in 2002, and eight (of 12) in 2003. Hendrix College in Arkansas ranks 24th in the nation in the number of its graduates per total enrollment who have received Ph.D.s in chemistry. Most dramatic may be Whitworth College in Washington State, which has increased the number of physics majors by almost 400 percent in five years, from 11 in 1997 to 41 in 2002.
I happen to know about these lesser-known liberal arts colleges that are doing such a good job of producing career scientists because the Council of Independent Colleges has, for the past three years, run a prize program that recognizes outstanding achievement in undergraduate science education. What has been interesting about the applicant pool for these Heuer Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education (as they are called) is that only five out of the 60 institutions that were nominated in 2002 and eight out of the 47 institutions nominated in 2003 had enrollment of over 3,000 students. Almost all of the institutions that have good reason to believe that they are making significant contributions to society’s need for high-quality career scientists are very small.
Richard Ekman, "Selective and Non-Selective Alike: An Argument for the Superior Educational Effectiveness of Smaller Liberal Arts Colleges" in American Council of Learned Societies, ACLS OCCASIONAL PAPER, No. 59.