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 impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students and colleges will be felt for a generation to come. Many colleges lost much of their financial reserves as campuses emptied out for months and students returned under expensive social distancing and sanitizing protocols. Lower-income families were hit harder by the pandemic. Many less wealthy Americans lost their jobs, and many lost their lives, especially if they were blue-collar employees who could not work from home. Finally, enrollment fell sharply over the past year, with the largest declines among racial minorities, lower-income students, and men. 

Check out the complete 2021 Washington Monthly rankings here.

These factors have made it more important than ever for colleges to demonstrate their value to students and society as a whole. For the 10th 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. (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 are primarily the unsung heroes of American higher education: colleges with strong regional reputations that serve large numbers of students from low-income families and help them graduate and succeed in the labor market. A few of America’s wealthiest colleges also make appearances near the top of the lists, but many colleges with billion-dollar endowments lag far behind. In the Northeast, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy takes top billing, followed by the City University of New York’s Baruch College, MIT, and Rutgers-Newark. Rutgers-Newark graduates 71 percent of its students and enrolls far more Pell Grant recipients than expected. Its students are able to start quickly repaying their loans.

In the South and Midwest, Berea College and College of the Ozarks maintain their top rankings thanks to their economic diversity, relatively strong graduation rates, and commitment to meeting students’ financial need. The University of Illinois and Texas A&M flagship campuses are second in their respective regions and both graduate more than 1,000 Pell recipients each year. Vanderbilt, Rice, and Northwestern all appear in the top 10 due to strong outcomes for the modest number of lower-income students they serve.  

In the Southeast, the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus edges out the University of Florida and James Madison University for top billing, with Appalachian State University aptly representing regional public universities. Out west, the California State University system tightened its grip on the top of the rankings, grabbing seven of the top 10 spots and 18 of the top 30 positions. When net prices are generally below $10,000 per year, students make strong progress repaying their loans, and students graduate at high rates across the system, it is hard for other universities to compete. 

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. Here at the Monthly, we like to shine the spotlight on colleges with the resources to do better. Take, for example, Tulane University, which ranked 205 among 211 colleges in the South despite an endowment of nearly $1.5 billion. While much of a university’s endowment is restricted to be used for purposes stated by donors, Tulane still has enough money floating around to improve.

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Robert Kelchen

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