Group of Students Studying in a Library
Credit: iStock

High school students and their families–who face looming deadlines for college applications and are worried about high tuition–now have a valuable resource in the Washington Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck” college ranking.

We compiled and analyzed federal data to develop an exclusive list of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices. The top colleges on our list are a mix of some of America’s most elite institutions and hidden gems that make up for a lack of national name recognition. These schools have low net prices and strong records of helping students of modest means graduate with high-quality degrees that earn them good salaries in the job market. Many are schools that U.S. News & World Report, which rewards schools for prestige, doesn’t even bother to rank.

“Just like the ‘Cheap Eats’ list helps people discover affordable restaurants with delicious food they might otherwise miss, the Best Bang rankings help budget-minded students and their families find high-quality colleges at prices they can afford,” said Paul Glastris, editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly.

The Best Bang rankings are divided by region:

Midwestern College

University of Illinois at Chicago combines low net price ($11,145 per year), strong income potential (students earn a median $52,384 annually 10 years after they start at the school) and location in America’s third-largest city to make it a great choice. Other standout Midwest schools include College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Indiana Wesleyan, and Union Institute & University in Ohio.

Northern Colleges

Students of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the top-ranked school in the Northern U.S., earn $80,091 annually ten years after they start — $1,639 more than students who attend Princeton, number three on the list. Other great options in the region include Rutgers University-Camden in New Jersey and City University of New York Bernard M. Baruch College.

Southern Colleges

Berea College in Kentucky charges nothing for tuition—students are assigned campus jobs tailored to their majors. Other Southern schools high on this list: Texas A&M University–Texarkana and Tusculum University in Tennessee.


Augusta University in Georgia ranks at the bottom of U.S. News’college list but is number two on Washington Monthly’sBest Bang colleges in the Southeast. That’s because the school’s focuson in-demand jobs in the health care help its racially and economically diverse students, nearly two-thirds of whom are women, earn far more money than the Monthly’sstatistical models predict, all for an affordable net price of $10,158 per year.Other strong choices in the Southeast: Salem College in North Carolina and University of South Florida-Sarasota-Manatee.


California State University’s many campuses (in Stanislaus, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Sacramento and elsewhere) offer unmatched value, with net prices as low as $2,745 per year for degrees that help students earn median annual salaries between $37,313 and $47,254. Other top-notch Bang for the Buck schools in the West: University of Washington-Tacoma and Bingham Young University-Provo.

 The Best Bang rankings are based on graduation rates for first-time, full-time students, the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, and the typical price that families earning less than $75,000 a year pay for college after grant aid. Additional data on loan repayment rates, earnings, and the percentage of first-generation students are also incorporated into the findings. The Washington Monthly’s Best Bang for the Buck rankings can be found here. The magazine’s other rankings—including Best Colleges for Adult Learners and Best Colleges for Vocational Certificates—are available in Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings issue here.