People pose with a female graduate in cap and gown in front of the Cal State Dominguez Hills sign in Carson, Calif. (Kirby Lee via AP)

Although the American economy made it through the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic in surprisingly strong shape, rising inflation and an unpredictable supply chain are stretching the budgets of many families. As the prices of housing, food, gasoline, and other essentials continue to rise faster than household incomes, a college education may end up becoming an important item that families simply cannot afford without taking out large student and parent loans.

Layer mounting skepticism of the value of higher education and growing political polarization on top of financial concerns for many families, and it becomes more crucial than ever for colleges to provide high-quality, affordable educations to students from modest financial backgrounds. To help families identify those institutions, the Washington Monthly created the Best Bang for the Buck college rankings 10 years ago. This year’s rankings 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 2022 Washington Monthly rankings here.

The Best Bang for the Buck colleges primarily consist of regionally focused public and private nonprofit colleges that are dedicated to providing affordable educations to their students. While some of America’s wealthiest and most rejective colleges—such as Duke, MIT, and Vanderbilt—are highly ranked, many appear in the middle of the pack despite having the resources to do better. For example, Amherst College, ranked the second-best liberal arts school in the country by U.S. News & World Report, checks in at number 42 in the Monthly’s Best Bang ranking for the Northeast region, despite an endowment approaching $4 billion to support fewer than 2,000 students. One spot ahead of Amherst is SUNY at New Paltz, which provides high-value educations to more than three times as many undergraduates on a far more modest budget—the university just completed its first capital campaign to the tune of $25 million. 

In the Northeast, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy again anchors the top of the list, with New York’s Boricua College and Rutgers University–Newark in the top 10, elbowing aside wealthier colleges. Berea College maintains its top ranking in the South, followed by four Texas public universities in the top 10. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley stands out at number five for graduating 2,106 Pell Grant recipients, or approximately nine times as many as sixth-ranked Vanderbilt. In the Midwest, Union Institute & University takes the top spot, followed by National Louis University and College of the Ozarks. 

In the Southeast, Washington and Lee, Georgetown, and Duke are the top three universities. They represent outstanding value for the students from lower-income families whom they accept, but there aren’t many of those—the three universities combined graduate only about 500 Pell recipients. Florida International University and the University of Florida are immediately behind, in fourth and fifth place, and graduate more than 7,000 Pell recipients while also keeping net prices low. Columbia Southern University, ranking eighth, deserves recognition for being the only for-profit college in the top 10. In the West, Brigham Young University leads the way, followed by the University of Washington Tacoma and the usual cast of 15 California State University campuses in the top 30. 

We only display the top 50 colleges in print. Online, we list the full 200-plus colleges per region. Toward the bottom of those rankings, we find a mix of middling public and private nonprofit colleges along with a number of for-profit college chains. Baylor, Liberty, Tulane, Tulsa, and Xavier (Ohio) are well-known universities that are near the bottom of their respective regions for charging students with modest means high net prices and generating unimpressive outcomes.

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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.