America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges 2014

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

To see our 2014 Best-Bang-for-the-Buck rankings click here.

This magazine has published more articles over the last decade decrying the ever-rising price of college than we care to count. In 2012, we got tired of hearing ourselves whine and decided to do something more. So we altered our college rankings in a way that rewards schools that do a good job of conferring degrees on middle- and lower-income students while charging them reasonable prices. We called this our “Best Bang for the Buck” measure. Last year we created a whole new Best Bang for the Buck ranking, highlighting 349 colleges that score well on measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes. We hoped our efforts would provoke a conversation about Washington’s willingness to keep funding, via federal grants and loans, endless tuition hikes with no questions asked.

Then, a day before our 2013 college rankings went public, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would begin rating colleges based on measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes similar to those in our Best Bang for the Buck list.

Coincidence? We think not.

The gears of Washington grind slowly, however. The administration says a first draft of its new rating system won’t be published until this fall. A final version is scheduled to be released by fall 2015, presuming its enemies in Congress and in the higher education lobbying community aren’t able to kill it (see Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus, “Who’s Afraid of College Rankings?).

So, for those who don’t want to wait (or bet) on Washington, we offer our second annual Best Bang for the Buck ranking—our exclusive list of the colleges in America that do the best job of helping non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices. Out of the 1,540 colleges and universities in our broader rankings, only 386 made the cut as Best Bang for the Buck schools. You can see the top 100 starting on page 26 and the rest on our website at washingtonmonthly.com.

To get on our list, colleges had to meet four criteria in the most recent year. First, to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent, at least 20 percent of their students must be receiving Pell Grants, which go to students of modest means (typically those with annual household incomes below $50,000). Second, they must have a graduation rate of at least 50 percent—hardly an exacting standard, but a fair one considering that we’re requiring that a fifth of their student body have lower incomes, a demographic that tends to graduate in lower numbers. Third, each school’s actual graduation rate must meet or exceed the rate that would be statistically predicted for that school given the number of lower-income students admitted (among other things, this calculation assures that schools with more than the minimum 20 percent of Pell students aren’t penalized). Fourth, to make sure their graduates are earning enough in the workforce to at least cover their student loans, schools must have a student loan default rate of 10 percent or less.

Once we compiled the list, we applied the “buck” part of the measure by ranking the schools based on their net price of attendance. (Net price is the average tuition that first-time, full-time students from families with an annual income of $75,000 or less actually pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.)

The first thing you’ll notice is that the top three schools on this year’s list are City University of New York campuses (Brooklyn, Queens, and Baruch). The CUNY schools are legendary for having educated wave after wave of first-generation students, many from immigrant backgrounds, from Jonas Salk to Jennifer Lopez. These three colleges continue that tradition thanks to generous financing from both the state and the city, with at least 35 percent of their students receiving Pell Grants, a graduation rate of about 55 percent, and an average net price of about $5,000 for low- to middle-income students. These are the types of colleges that the U.S. News & World Report tends to relegate to its lower tiers, but they are a great value for students who can gain admission.

The next thing you’ll notice is the dominance of public schools. They take eighteen of the top twenty spots, and include such well-known names as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Texas A&M, and the University of Washington, alongside lesser-known schools like Murray State University in Kentucky and Wayne State University in Nebraska. These institutions tend to be in states that have historically been unusually committed to building affordable higher education systems. Some, like New York, have resisted the “disinvestment” trend we hear so much about. Others, like California and North Carolina, have pulled money out, but they were so cheap to begin with that they’re still, relatively speaking, inexpensive.

While all of the colleges on the list do a good job of serving a broad swath of the population, there are large differences in the price that students and their families should expect to pay. One year at the three CUNY colleges at the top of our list costs about $5,000 per year, compared to just over $25,000 per year at nearby Fordham University. It may be the case that Fordham students get a better education and make more money after graduation than CUNY students, offsetting the difference in price, but that cannot be determined given available data.

It’s worth pointing out—and giving kudos to—the relative handful of private institutions, including Amherst College and Brigham Young University-Idaho, that made the list. These schools go out of their way to recruit less-affluent students and keep the prices they charge to those students down.

It’s also worth noting some of the big-name public flagships, like the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, that aren’t on the list. That’s because they don’t admit enough Pell-eligible students, which is another way of saying that they don’t reflect the demographics of their own states. These “public private” flagships, as well as some of the Ivies, do better on our “Affordable Elite” rankings, mostly because that list is restricted to, well, the elite schools. But if institutions like Amherst and the University of Washington can make our Best Bang for the Buck list, there’s no reason UVA and Harvard couldn’t too, if they tried.

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.