To see our 2013 Best-Bang-for-the-Buck rankings, click here.

Here’s a headline you’ve probably seen on a dozen media stories since the economy tanked: “Is a College Degree Still Worth It?” It’s a good question, considering that the job market is still weak and college costs are still rising faster than both inflation and median family income.

The answer is a qualified yes. “Yes” in the sense that recent college graduates are earning considerably more than those without college degrees and are far less likely to be unemployed. “Qualified” in the sense that if you paid too much for that degree, or didn’t graduate at all, the answer may be no. That’s especially the case for students from middle- and lower-income families, who don’t have money to burn and for whom a bad bet on the wrong college can mean a five-figure student debt they’ll never escape.

So the more precise question prospective students should be asking is this: What colleges will charge people like me the least and give me the highest chance of graduating with a degree that means something in the marketplace?

To answer that question, we created our “Best Bang for the Buck” ranking—our exclusive list of the colleges in America that do the best job of helping nonwealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices. And it is a pretty exclusive list: out of the 1,572 colleges and universities in our broader rankings, only 349 made the cut as best-bang-for-the-buck schools. (See the full list here.)

To get on our list, colleges have to meet four criteria. First, to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent, at least 20 percent of their students must be receiving Pell Grants, which go to students of modest means (typically those with annual household incomes below $50,000). Second, they must have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent—hardly an exacting standard, but a fair one considering that we’re requiring that a fifth of their student body have lower incomes, a demographic that tends to graduate in lower numbers. Third, each school’s actual graduation rate must meet or exceed the rate that would be statistically predicted for that school given the number of lower-income students admitted (among other things, this calculation assures that schools with more than the minimum 20 percent of Pell students aren’t penalized). Fourth, to make sure their graduates are earning enough in the workforce to at least cover their student loans, schools must have a student loan default rate of 10 percent or less.

Once we compiled the list, we applied the “buck” part of the measure by ranking the schools based on their net price of attendance. (Net price is the average tuition that first-time, full-time students from families with an annual income of $75,000 or less actually pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.)

If you study the list, a few interesting patterns emerge. For instance, there’s a conspicuous lack of for-profit colleges; only one, Trident University International in California, made it in, at number 170. By contrast, the vast majority on the list are public institutions. That makes sense: even with big recent tuition increases, public colleges and universities remain the most affordable option for most students. But not all public institutions make the grade. Some prestigious flagships, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of California, Berkeley, and Indiana University, did, but many others—the University of Virginia, Penn State, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, to name a few—did not. That’s because they don’t let in enough Pell-eligible students, which is another way of saying they don’t reflect the demographics of their own states.

The public schools that really dominate the list are the kind that the U.S. News & World Report tends to relegate to its lower tiers—places like CUNY Queens College, California State, Long Beach, and East Carolina University. These schools may not be big names nationally, but they deliver for their students big-time.

And then there’s the number one school on our list, Amherst College. It’s not there by accident. Rather, under its former president Anthony Marx, the elite liberal arts college made an effort to recruit more low-income students, nearly doubling the percentage of its students on Pell Grants in the past decade. And while other colleges have been increasingly using their in-house financial aid for “merit” scholarships (see Stephen Burd, “Merit Aid Madness,”) to lure students with high SAT scores or who are “full pay”—that is, whose families are wealthy enough to cover the bulk of a steep tuition bill—Amherst did the opposite. It chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college. Another elite liberal arts college, Williams, also makes our list. But instructively, none of the other prestigious, well-endowed private colleges and universities in America—not Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Smith, none of them—can make that claim.

For the full set of rankings, click here.

For a list of standout “Best-Bang-for-the-Buck” schools, click here.

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Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.