Graduates celebrate during the California State University of Los Angeles commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 26, 2022. (Ringo Chiu via AP)

Higher education in America is facing its most severe challenges in decades. Enrollment is down, inflation is up,  and Americans are more skeptical than ever that a college degree is worth the time and money needed to earn it. And there are plenty of colleges that do little to counter this narrative, thanks to being bastions of elitism or producing lousy outcomes using hard-earned tuition and tax dollars.

The good news is that there are quite a few colleges that provide a quality education at an affordable price for students with modest economic means. We have been highlighting these colleges for more than a decade in our annual list of Best Bang for the Buck colleges, and we are pleased to share the 2023 version of the rankings. The 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.) 

The Best Bang for the Buck colleges across each of the five regions include a few incredibly wealthy and highly rejective colleges, but they are matched and surpassed by regionally focused public and private colleges that focus on providing value to their students. For example, Vanderbilt University—a national top performer in U.S. News & World Report’s exclusivity-focused college guide—ranked only 10th in the South for graduating and financially supporting the modest number of Pell Grant recipients that it admits. Vanderbilt trails institutions such as Texas A&M International University (57th in U.S. News’s ranking of universities in the West), Sam Houston State University (263rd among national universities in U.S. News), and Grambling State University (99th among U.S. News’s southern universities) that graduate far more Pell recipients and propel them into the middle class.

In the Northeast, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy edged out the University of Pennsylvania and MIT for first place. Two City University of New York campuses made the top 10, sandwiching super-wealthy Princeton. Wade College in Texas was tops in the South (but unranked by U.S. News), closely followed by the longtime Monthly favorite Berea College. In the Southeast, Florida International University topped Washington and Lee University in our rankings while producing nearly 100 times as many Pell graduates each year. (FIU is tied for 151st nationally in U.S. News,which ranks Washington and Lee highly by comparison.) Four public universities in Florida made the top 10, but that might change in the future as Governor Ron DeSantis’s battle against a top-notch higher education system plays out.

In the Midwest, Governors State University takes top honors for far outperforming expectations on graduation rates and earnings of former students. In the West, the list is dominated by California State University campuses yet again, with seven Cal State campuses outperforming ultra-rejective Stanford. 

We only display our top 50 colleges in print. Online, we list the full 200-plus colleges per region. The bottom of the rankings mainly consists of expensive private nonprofit and for-profit colleges with middling student outcomes. Tulane University has been on our shame list for years, and it checks in at last place in the South this year due to relatively poor graduation rates, low post-college earnings, and a high net price. Compare that to its position in U.S. News, which rewarded Tulane with the 44th national spot last year for its research power, low acceptance rate, and hefty endowment. Other low-ranked universities in the Monthly’s college guide with substantial financial resources include the University of Miami, High Point University, Creighton University, and the University of Tulsa.

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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.