America’s Best Bang for the Buck Colleges 2015

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

To see our 2015 Best-Bang-for-the-Buck rankings click here.

This is the fourth year in a row we’ve produced a set of rankings that rewards colleges that do a good job of conferring degrees on lower- and middle-income students while charging them reasonable prices. This “Best Bang for the Buck” measure has evolved over time, from an article highlighting a small number of colleges with great outcomes in the first year to a stand-alone list of several hundred colleges performing well on access, affordability, and completion metrics.

The national discussion about college value has also changed. Two years ago, President Barack Obama was vowing to rate the nation’s colleges and universities based on metrics very similar to our Best Bang for the Buck rankings. Earlier this summer, however, the administration raised the white flag after bitter protests from the college lobbying community and threats from Congress to defund the endeavor. It now says it will merely provide more and better data and let private outfits do the grading. This means that if you want to know which colleges in America provide the best value for ordinary, non-wealthy students, the Washington Monthly is the only game in town!

We’ll incorporate the government’s new data, if it’s valuable, into future rankings. But we’re not standing still this year. For a new book we just published, The Other College Guide: A Roadmap to the Right School for You (New Press), we’ve revised our Best Bang for the Buck rankings to include all four-year colleges covered in our regular rankings, not just the few hundred top ones. To do so, we changed our methodology slightly (a detailed methodology can be found here). Instead of creating a short list of schools that met our minimum performance standards (on student loan default rate, graduation rate, graduation rate performance, and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants) and then ranking those schools by their net price of attendance (how much students pay for college after grants and scholarships), we ranked all colleges by those performance criteria and then considered net price. We’ve also grouped colleges by region to make the rankings easier for students to use—80 percent of students choose colleges near where they live. You can see the rankings here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the top-ranked colleges within each region (College of the Ozarks, the City University of New York’s Bernard Baruch College, Berea College in Kentucky, East Carolina University in North Carolina, and the University of Washington’s main Seattle campus) are a mix of household names and relatively unknown institutions. But the stories behind these colleges and their strong performances are fascinating. For example, Berea College primarily serves students from low-income families and does not charge tuition, thanks to a large endowment and generous donors, resulting in a negative net price for the neediest students and a 64 percent graduation rate. East Carolina University, however, relies on the state of North Carolina’s traditional strong support for higher education in order to keep tuition low. At East Carolina, nearly 60 percent of students graduate, 31 percent receive Pell Grants, and just 3 percent default on their loans. Berea and East Carolina are not found in the top fifty of the U.S. News rankings, but they are a great value for students who can gain admission.

While all of the colleges near the top of the list do a good job of serving a broad swath of the population at a reasonable price, this is not necessarily the case for colleges near the bottom of the list. Many University of Phoenix branch campuses show up near the bottom of the lists, and for good reason. Graduation rates are typically below 25 percent, one in six students default on their loans within two years of beginning repayment, and the net price per year is around $23,000. Although much of the for-profit college sector has faced scrutiny for poor outcomes and high prices, students should also be wary of some of the public and private nonprofit colleges with similarly poor outcomes.

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

Robert Kelchen

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