College student walks through library
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Unlike most traditional college rankings, the Washington Monthly’s have always made colleges’ contribution to social mobility a priority. We started our annual Best Bang for the Buck rankings back in 2012 using little more than graduation rates for first-time, full-time students, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and the typical price that moderate-income families pay for college after grant aid. Thankfully, more data on social mobility has become available over the last few years as policymakers have placed more of a focus on social mobility. In spite of its stated intention to downsize the U.S. Department of Education (or even merge it with the Department of Labor), the Trump administration has so far continued to provide data on loan repayment rates, earnings, and the percentage of first-generation students, data that was first made available back in 2015 by the Obama administration.

We have long advocated in these pages for better graduation rate data, and this year the Department of Education introduced two new sets of statistics that show a clearer picture of social mobility. Graduation rates are now available for all students—not just first-time, full-time students, who make up an ever-smaller share of college students—as well as separate graduation rate data for Pell Grant recipients. We are pleased to incorporate this data into the 2018 Best Bang for the Buck rankings, which are broken down by region. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings; the methodology is explained here.)

Check out the complete 2018 Washington Monthly rankings here. 

The Best Bang for the Buck colleges across each of the five regions are a mix of some of America’s most elite institutions and hidden gems that make up for a lack of name recognition with strong student outcomes and a commitment to social mobility. In the Northeast, the public Massachusetts Maritime Academy (with a low net price, and average annual earnings of around $80,000 ten years after starting college) noses out Harvard and Princeton, while landlubbers may wish to consider fourth-ranked Rutgers-Camden. Berea College and College of the Ozarks, which both primarily serve students from modest financial backgrounds at low prices, maintain their top rankings in the South and Midwest regions, respectively.

Georgia’s Augusta University (where 43 percent of students receive Pell Grants) is number 2 in the Southeast and a great option for students who want more socioeconomic diversity than number 1, Washington and Lee (10 percent Pell), and number 3, Georgetown (13 percent Pell). Finally, two California State University campuses (Stanislaus and Bakersfield) are best in the West. That’s in large part because their Pell and non-Pell students graduate at the same rate, and because nearly 60 percent of their students are the first in their family to attend college. Cal State deserves additional credit for placing twelve of its campuses in the top thirty in the West region, showing a commitment to social mobility within both the system and the state.

As usual, the bottom of the rankings features not just middling public universities and for-profit institutions, but also a striking number of private nonprofit colleges with strong national reputations that are not living up to the hype for middle-class students. Baylor, Catholic, Chapman, Hofstra, and Tulane are all well-known, relatively prestigious universities. They also serve few Pell recipients and first-generation students, charge students high net prices, and graduate Pell recipients at lower rates than other students. The website for High Point University, ranked fourth from the bottom in the Southeast, proudly features a “campus concierge” that provides free iPad rentals, among other offerings. The recreational facilities include—just to scratch the surface—three sand volleyball courts, five heated pools, and four fourteen-person jacuzzi hot tubs. (There is also an indoor, apparently unheated, pool, and another hot tub, of unspecified capacity.) Yet with an annual net price of $33,433 and median post-college earnings of $38,176, we can think of some better uses of students’ and parents’ money.

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