America’s Affordable Elite Colleges 2014

Which selective schools give high-achieving non-wealthy students a break in price, and which break their bank accounts?

To see our 2014 Affordable elite list of rankings, click here.

When putting together our annual college rankings, we here at the Washington Monthly have never given any weight to how selective schools are, for a number of reasons. First, admission rates don’t tell you much about how much learning actually goes on in classrooms. Selectivity is a measure of input (how smart and academically prepared the incoming class is), not outcome. Second, the vast majority of college students never set foot in these elite institutions. Instead, they attend less selective schools where the spending per student is typically lower (even if the quality of the education is often comparable because there are terrific professors spread all over the country). Third, the excessive prestige these elite schools command in our culture, and the press’s fixation on them, warps the incentive structure in higher education—by, among other things, enticing less selective colleges to tighten up their admissions standards in order to climb the status ladder. This gives those colleges a classier image and their administrators an excuse to raise their own salaries. But it means that these schools abandon the less affluent, less academically prepared students they used to teach. These are students who, in a tough globalized economy, desperately need a quality college education.

As much as we don’t want to endorse the college prestige racket, we understand that there are valid reasons for families to want their kids to go to the most selective schools they qualify for. While the general level of teaching might not necessarily be better at those schools, the opportunities for networking, internships, and study-abroad programs often are. Because of peer pressure, among other things, students at many selective schools put a little more time into their studies. And the cachet of being able to say you went to an elite school can last a lifetime.

Another reason to pay attention to elite schools is equity. Many researchers have shown that academically gifted students from lower-income families tend to “undermatch” when choosing colleges. That is, they go to significantly less selective schools than they could have gotten into, often out of fear (sometimes valid, sometimes not) that they can’t afford the more elite institutions. In part as a result, they graduate from college at lower rates and make lower lifetime incomes than they otherwise would have. Moreover, as college costs have shot up over the years, more and more academically outstanding middle-income students are also finding themselves priced out of many selective institutions that, a generation ago, they might have gone to. (Affluent families may still be able to afford to send their kids to these schools, but they might want to question the wisdom of doing so; unlike the less privileged, more advantaged students do not see higher wages from attending a more selective college, according to careful research by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger.)

So for these reasons we’re introducing a new ranking this year, which we call “Affordable Elites.” Our aim, first and foremost, is to show high-achieving but non-wealthy students that there are still plenty of selective schools out there that they can likely afford. Indeed, some will be better bargains than less selective public schools in their states. Our second aim is to demonstrate that not all selective schools are so generous. In fact, many will charge low- and middle-income students a king’s ransom, leave them buried in debt, and won’t even do a good job of helping them graduate.

We focused on the 224 most selective four-year colleges in our main rankings, with selectivity determined by a competitiveness score developed by Barron’s. We then rated the colleges on a 0-3 scale on a version of the same criteria we used to create our “Best Bang for the Buck” ranking, including the percent of students receiving Pell Grants, student loan default rates, six-year graduation rates, and the net price of attendance (the total cost of attending college less all grant aid received) for families making less than $75,000 per year. (See here for a fuller explanation of our methodology.) The top 100 schools start on page 32; the rest can be found online, at washingtonmonthly.com.

Our ranking shows the average ACT/SAT scores and admission rates of each college (the list is sortable by test scores on our website). And it breaks down the average net price of each college for students from families in three different annual income categories: those making $0 to $30,000, $30,000 to $75,000, and more than $75,000. With this information, students trying to decide which schools to apply to can easily scan the list and see which they have the best shot at getting into (based on test scores and admit rates but also Pell percentages, which, for lower-income students, are a good indication of their chance of being accepted). Then, of those schools, students can see which will charge them the least. (Keep in mind that these are average net prices that can and will vary by individual based on criteria such as family assets.) If you study the list, a few interesting patterns emerge.

The Publics

On most lists of America’s elite colleges and universities, private institutions dominate. That’s less true of our Affordable Elites ranking. Seven of our top twenty are public universities, including our number one school, the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA scored thirteen out of a possible fifteen points by enrolling large numbers of Pell Grant recipients (35 percent of the student body), graduating 91 percent of students within six years, and charging an average price of just over $10,000 after taking grants into account. Three other University of California campuses (Berkeley, Irvine, and San Diego) cracked our top ten, and several other notable state flagships round out our top twenty.

While some other public universities (such as CUNY Baruch College, the University of Florida, and the University of Texas at Dallas) deserve praise for graduating high percentages of students at a reasonable cost to students while encouraging economic diversity, other selective public universities are not serving their students so well. These schools, often in states where higher education funding has stagnated in recent years, either aren’t letting in many lower-income students, or are charging them very high prices, or both. The University of Pittsburgh (#201), Colorado School of Mines (#208), and Miami University of Ohio (#211) all charge at least $15,000 per year to middle-income students—more than some private colleges.

The Ivies

Many of the Ivy League schools that perennially show up on other lists of top colleges also do well on our Affordable Elites rankings. That includes Harvard, which earns its number two ranking by charging an astonishingly low net price of $1,533 to students from families making $30,000 a year or less and $3,774 to those earning $30,000 to $75,000. Harvard doesn’t admit many low-income students (11 percent of its students receive Pell Grants), but the ones it does let in get a great deal. Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, and the Ivy-equivalent Stanford also make it into our top twenty. But a number of Ivies don’t do as well, including Princeton (#30) and Yale (#33). Why? Mostly because they’re charging non-wealthy students higher prices—three or four times as much as Harvard.

The Strivers

Other national universities and liberal arts colleges that rank in, say, the top fifty on the U.S. News & World Report list place much lower on our Affordable Elites list. These include Barnard (#65), Brandeis (#77), Northwestern (#78), Bryn Mawr (#110), Boston University (#169), George Washington (#178), Carnegie Mellon (#186), Reed (#197), and Northeastern (#215). One thing a lot of these schools have in common is that they have raised their admissions standards in recent decades to ascend the prestige ladder. Another is that instead of giving moderate-income students a break in price, they charge prices that break their bank accounts.

The Endowment Hoarders and the Endowment Deprived

Smart high school guidance counselors have long told their high-achieving but lower-income students to apply to schools with large endowments because those institutions have the money to offer better financial aid packages. To see how wise that advice is, and to make it easier for students to follow it, we show each college’s endowment funds per full-time student for every school on our Affordable Elites list.

Sure enough, the numbers seem to bear out the advice, at least in general. Harvard can afford to charge low-income families only $1,533 because it’s sitting on an endowment worth $1,240,548 per student. A 5 percent return on that money—and Harvard historically has earned about 12 percent—would generate $62,027 a year, more than enough to cover the $59,950 sticker price for a year at Harvard. It makes you wonder why the school charges lower-income students any tuition at all.

Contrast this to one of the “striver” schools, which, owing to the recentness of their climb up the selectivity scale, don’t have as many super-rich alumni to hit up for donations. George Washington University’s endowment, for instance, amounts to only $69,758 per student, one-eighteenth the size of Harvard’s. That’s one reason (plus the state-of-the-art squash courts) GW charges students from families earning $30,000 or less $16,249 a year.

But the big endowment/big discount equation isn’t universal. Princeton and Yale both have even bigger endowment per student ratios than Harvard, but charge low- and middle-income students double, triple, or quadruple as much. What’s with that?

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University, is data manager of the Washington Monthly College Guide.