For the past four years, we’ve ranked America’s colleges and universities based on their “Bang for the Buck”—that is, the extent to which they charge students who aren’t rich a reasonable price for quality education that will advance them in their careers. Last fall, the Obama administration made our job a lot easier. It released a new data set, the “College Scorecard,” that shows, for the first time, how much students earn ten years after enrolling at a given college and whether they’re paying down at least some of the loan principal. It also reveals the percent of first-generation students each college enrolls, a key measure of its commitment to opportunity. We incorporated all this new data, and more, into our 2016 Best Bang for the Buck rankings, which are broken down by region. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings, which can be found here; the methodology is explained here.)
The top Best Bang for the Buck colleges in each of our five regions reflect a diverse group of institutions. Harvard University (tops in the Northeast) does a relatively good job for an elite college in enrolling lower-income and first-generation students, and getting into Harvard is generally a ticket to economic success. Berea College (South) and College of the Ozarks (Midwest) are familiar to many in the higher education world for being tuition-free colleges that primarily serve low-income students. Cal State–Bakersfield is best in the West for serving large numbers of modest-income and first-generation students at a low price, and setting them up to earn, ten years after enrolling, $49,800 a year, over $10,000 more than do former students from other colleges who have similar backgrounds. The University of Mount Olive in North Carolina heads our Southeast list on the strength of a low net price of attendance for families making less than $75,000 per year and outperforming its expected values for graduation rates, earnings, and loan repayment.
Across the regions, a few trends stand out. Some elite private colleges (such as Penn, Princeton, Duke, and Stanford) make the top twenty in their regions, but the lists are dominated by lesser-known private colleges and non-flagship public colleges. For example, CUNY Brooklyn College is one spot ahead of Yale in the Northeast and Trinity Washington College edges out Davidson College in the Southeast. University of California and California State University campuses make up nearly half of the top twenty in the West, highlighting the historical commitment of California citizens to their public colleges (even as the number of qualified students far exceeds available capacity).
Prospective students who don’t have money to burn might also want to look at the bottom of our Best Bang lists to see which kinds of colleges they should probably avoid, and why. The University of Tulsa, 197th out of 199 colleges in the South, charges more than $22,000 a year in tuition, even though its students go on to earn almost $10,500 less per year than would be expected considering their backgrounds. If your family income is less that $75,000 a year and you want to enroll at Hampshire College, the respected liberal arts school in Massachusetts, be aware that you’ll pay, on average, $24,000 a year to do so and ten years later will earn $31,900 a year, nearly $8,000 less than had you attended another school, even after taking the mix of majors into account.
Finally, in the future we would love to supplement these rankings with data not just on specific colleges but on different programs within each college. After all, a university that might be a great value for a physics major might not be so good for a communications major. The U.S. Department of Education has indicated that it may include program-level data in future updates to the College Scorecard tool. However, the federal government is years behind states such as Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia in making this important information available to the public—in part due to a congressional ban on student-level data that primarily serves to obscure colleges’ true outcomes.