America’s Best Bang for the Buck Colleges

Our one-of-a-kind list of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis have made colleges’ role in enhancing social mobility more important than ever. Typically, during recessions, more Americans enroll in colleges and universities in an effort to boost their job prospects. We may not see enrollments increase until after the public health crisis passes—which could take a year or two—but millions of Americans are doubtlessly thinking ahead to what colleges can do for them. 

Check out the complete 2020 Washington Monthly rankings here.

For the ninth year, we produced a ranking of Best Bang for the Buck colleges, which is laser focused on showing which colleges do a good job promoting social mobility—and which don’t. The rankings are broken down by region, beginning on page 52. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings, which begin on page 62; the methodology is explained on page 106.) We had to use the same data for median earnings and student loan repayment rates as last year, as the U.S. Department of Education did not update college-level data in the College Scorecard this year. Hopefully the federal government will continue to share this important information with the public going forward.

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 with strong student outcomes and a commitment to upward mobility. In the Northeast, four Ivy League universities and MIT are joined in the top 10 by Goddard College, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Bentley University, the City University of New York’s Baruch College, and Rutgers University–Newark. At Baruch College, low-income students with Pell Grants graduate at essentially the same rate as their wealthier peers. And the cost of attending is reasonable; for a student from a household earning less than $75,000, Baruch has a net price of $2,789 per year. This is what an engine of social mobility looks like. 

In the South and Midwest, Berea College and College of the Ozarks maintain their consistently high rankings thanks to their economic diversity, relatively strong graduation rates, and commitment to meeting students’ financial need. Public universities do well in both regions, with the University of Illinois campuses in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign landing within the top five in the Midwest and Texas A&M’s College Station and Texarkana campuses joining the University ofTexas–Rio Grande Valley in the top five. More than half of UT–Rio Grande Valley students are the first in their families to attend college, and the average net price is just $3,298 per year.

In the Southeast, Georgetown University and Washington and Lee take the top two spots again this year, reflecting the fact that they serve their lower-income students exceptionally well. But combined, they only graduated 262 Pell recipients last year—about a fifth of the number that graduated from seventh-ranked Florida International University, where nearly half of the students are first generation. Finally, in the West, the California State University system continues to dominate the region. Fourteen of the top 23 colleges in the West are Cal State campuses, with Stanislaus taking the top spot this year. The University of Washington’s Tacoma campus and Utah State University also maintained their traditional spots in the top 10.

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. In a time when students and their families are balking at paying high tuition prices for mediocre student outcomes, many of these colleges will struggle and may be forced to change their behavior or risk going out of business. But not all of them. Liberty University, for example, is in no danger of closing, thanks to its billion-dollar endowment and around 100,000 students attending online, but their net price of $25,272 and 44 percent eight-year graduation rate result in them being ranked 262nd of 278 colleges in the Southeast. They can—and must—do better.

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Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.