America’s Best Bang for the Buck Colleges 2017

Our exclusive list of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

Economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren received national headlines earlier this year when their Equality of Opportunity Project released college mobility report cards focused on social mobility. These report cards charted the percentage of students from lower-income families who attended a particular college and then moved up the income distribution by the time they reached their early thirties. The top ten colleges for moving students from the bottom to the top income quintile were institutions such as California State University campuses, the City University of New York, and the University of Texas–El Paso. Meanwhile, elite institutions often scored far lower because so few low-income students were actually admitted.

Here at the Washington Monthly, we’re thrilled to see more national attention on the topic of social mobility. Since 2012, we’ve ranked America’s four-year colleges and universities based on their “bang for the buck”—that is, the extent to which they charge students who aren’t rich a reasonable price for quality education that will advance them in their careers. CUNY, UTEP, and Cal State campuses have all scored high on our rankings over the years because they excel to varying degrees at enrolling low-income students and helping them graduate and find good jobs—exactly the kinds of success markers we expect would produce the long-term results documented by Chetty et al.

Last year, we made major changes to the rankings methodology to incorporate new data from the U.S.
Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which will likely continue to be updated under the Trump administration with useful information on earnings, student loan repayment rates, and the percentage of first-generation students, among a host of other factors. Our 2017 Best Bang for the Buck rankings, which are broken down by region, can be found starting here. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings; the methodology is explained here.)

The top best bang colleges in each of our five regions reflect a diverse group of institutions. Elite schools Harvard University and Amherst College (tops in the Northeast) both enroll unusually high proportions of first-generation students for their level of selectivity, and both institutions have strong post-college outcomes. Washington and Lee University (Southeast) has just 10 percent of students receiving Pell Grants (the second lowest in the region, after Elon University), but those who are admitted pay almost nothing out of pocket. Berea College (South) and College of the Ozarks (Midwest) are familiar to many in the higher education world for being tuition-free colleges that primarily serve low-income students. The University of Washington–
Tacoma is best in the West for serving large proportions of lower-income and first-generation students at a low price, and setting them up to earn, ten years after enrolling, $53,700 a year—nearly $12,000 more than former students from other colleges who have similar backgrounds earn.

Although MIT, Georgetown, Davidson, and Stanford make the top ten in their regions, most of the top institutions are more humble, moderately selective public and private colleges. CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice (where 55 percent of students receive Pell Grants and 48 percent are first-generation college-goers) checks in right behind Williams College in the Northeast. Mississippi’s Tougaloo College appears at number 7 in the South, with 89 percent of its students receiving Pell Grants and with its students’ post-graduation earnings of $28,200 more than $3,400 better than expected in low-cost Mississippi. Out west, California State University campuses occupy eleven of the top twenty-nine positions alongside five University of California peers.

The bottom of the rankings features a mix of expensive private nonprofit colleges with mediocre outcomes and branch campuses of for-profit colleges. Catholic University of America is in the bottom ten for the Southeast thanks to its very low rate of Pell recipients for its selectivity (just 13 percent) and its high net price of over $31,000 per year for families making less than $75,000. Baylor University, the University of Miami, High Point University, and Belmont University are other examples of low-performing colleges with little economic diversity and middling student earnings in spite of high price tags. If you’re looking at attending one of these colleges, we hope the data in these rankings will inspire you to ask hard questions about what that college is doing to provide students and their families with a better bang for the buck.

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.