(Skip to the end to see the list of top three college by graduation rates.) When trying to identify the cheapest colleges (or most affordable or hidden bargains or whatever your preferred terminology happens to be) it’s probably a good idea to keep in mind the saying, “you get what you pay for.” Unfortunately, too often this means that people just assume the more expensive product is the better one. The same is often true of colleges especially since it’s so difficult to actually figure out what you’re paying for. If you’re able to step away from the shiny attraction of prestige and brand names, I have a suggestion: graduation rates.
Click HERE to download list with size and acceptance rate information
Table of Contents
I won’t pretend that graduation rates are the ideal way to compare a college’s worth. It’s an imperfect number at best. But here’s the problem, we really don’t have anything else to use since the colleges have done an excellent job of making sure they don’t have to report any meaningful data to the public. We know a lot about the inputs of higher education, student qualifications, faculty qualifications, institutional expenditures, but nothing consistent and comparable in terms of outputs except for graduates.
Given that graduating is probably the primary goal of attending college, it’s a decent place to start. If two schools have a 60% 4-year graduation rate and one costs $70,000 while the other costs $50,000, would you at least want to know what justifies an $80,000 difference over four years? If you spend any time on various med school forums, you’ll find that quite a few members will recommend going to the cheapest school possible because you’re going to need the $80,000 to pay for medical school.
I’m going to give a quick explanation of how I classified my graduation data into seven groups. The first thing to remember is that I’m not making any claims of statistical significance in terms of my methodology. The second is that if you don’t like my groupings or reasoning, it’s easy for you to create your own to your own satisfaction.
At minimum, the schools had to report graduation rates. Then I eliminated all colleges that offered four-year degrees but are considered predominately community colleges. The groups also do not include special focus institutions such as art schools, health professions, or predominantly religious schools. This left me with 1,238 public and non-for-profit colleges.
Given all of the other issues in creating this list, I decided to go with the 4-year graduation rates for all institutions. Generally, I use the 5-year rate for public universities since depending on the financial aid situation, you can justify attending a 5th year at a public school and it would still be cheaper than a private school. However, I’m just going to stick with the 4-year graduation rate here instead of the 6-year commonly reported in the media and used on many college search websites.
My groups don’t have an equal number of schools in each category. I define the groups as follows:
|30% and under||134|
As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t like the groups, feel free to create your own.
There are several ways to compare the costs of college (see 5 Reasons why College Costs will Leave you Dazed and Confused.) The first is to simply look at the sticker price. Even though plenty of people, myself included, argue that’s not the best way to compare costs, I think there is worth in doing so. The simple fact is that there will always be people who know that they are going to pay the full total cost of attendance sticker price. For these comparisons I use the out-of-state costs for public institutions.
The second way and the one I generally recommend using is average net price. The average net price is the average price undergraduates pay after deducting all gift aid. This is a good indicator of a school’s financial aid generosity, especially among private schools. However, since average net price applies only to students paying in-state rates at public institutions, it’s really not meaningful for out-of-state students.
There is some overlap in the two categories. Five of the private colleges that ranked cheapest by Total Cost of Attendance also ranked at the top of the Average Net Price List.
A total of three public institutions can be found on both versions of cheapest colleges by graduation rates.
The only overlap in the highest two graduation rates categories is among the public schools.
The cheapest colleges by graduation rates using the Total Cost of Attendance can be found in 22 states with Mississippi having the most at five and North Carolina second with four. Six states tied for third with three each. There are only 12 states with public schools on the list. North Carolina tops the list with four institutions and then Mississippi, Florida, and North Dakota follow with three each. The schools are not as concentrated on the private side with two being the maximum number of colleges found in any of the states. And only five states of the 16 states in this category had two colleges making the list.
There are only 21 states with the most affordable colleges by graduation rate when you compare the schools by average net price. Overall, California has the most with seven schools on the list followed by New York with five and Indiana with three. The public institutions are located in only 10 states with six in California and four in New York. The private colleges are distributed among 15 states with no state accounting for more than two institutions.
The Total Cost of Attendance for the private colleges ranged from a low of $12,880 to a high of $41,186. The costs for public institutions spanned from $18,425 to $36,606 (out-of-state tuition.) The cheapest private colleges ranked by Average Net Price had a low of $,3354 to a high of $14,402. Among public universities, the lowest Average Net Price was $2,695 and the highest was $8,701.
Just over 70% of the colleges at the top of the Total Cost of Attendance list had fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates. Over 61% were in the under 2,500 group. There weren’t any private institutions in the Goldilocks’ size between 5,000 and 10,000 and only two private schools with more than 10,000 full-time undergraduates.
When comparing colleges by Average Net Price, the number of schools in the Over 10,000 category increases to 12 from the 7 in Total Cost of Attendance ranking. However, 11 of the schools are public institutions. Three private colleges made it into the Goldilocks category on the Average Net Price Rankings.
While the cheapest colleges by graduation rates tend to be small they actually are roughly distributed among the different Carnegie Classification types. When comparing by Total Cost of Attendance, there are 16 Baccalaureate Colleges, 13 Doctoral or Doctoral/Professional Universities and 12 in the Master’s Colleges & Universities category. Of the Baccalaureate Colleges, only five were considered Liberal Arts colleges, all of them private. And of the six institutions in the Research Universities group, all were public except one.
In the comparison by Average Net Price rankings, there were 15 Baccalaureate Colleges, 15 Doctoral Universities, and 12 Master’s Colleges & Universities. The number of Liberal Arts Colleges increased to 9 in this comparison, and the number of Doctoral Research Universities grew from 6 to 13.
The comparison based on Total Cost of Attendance had acceptance rates from 21% to 100%. Interestingly, neither school was in the extreme of the graduation groups. The range for private colleges was 21% to 99% while it was 30% to 100% for public institutions. The acceptance rates for just the two categories with the highest graduation rates had acceptance rates between 30% and 85% for public institutions and 24% to 86% for private colleges.
When you rank the cheapest colleges by graduation rates using Average Net Price, the lowest acceptance rate falls to just 4%. There are five schools on this list that have acceptance rates below the 21% of the Total Cost of Attendance list: four private institutions and one public. For private schools the lowest acceptance rate was 4% and the highest was 98%. The range was 20% to 94% for public universities. If you just consider the two categories with the highest graduation rates, the acceptance rates range from 4% to 83%.
The following ranks the three most affordable colleges by Total Cost of Attendance and Average Net Price and separates public and private schools. (Click HERE to download list with size and acceptance rate information)
|Cheapest by Total Price||Cheapest by Average Net Price|
|Name||Total Price||Name||Net Price|
|Grove City College||$31,840||Columbia University||$12,411|
|Wheaton College||$54,700||Harvard University||$13,910|
|Centre College||$60,700||Stanford University||$14,402|
|Alice Lloyd College||$28,120||Berea College||$3,354|
|College of the Ozarks||$31,456||Lyon College||$10,537|
|College of Saint Mary||$33,726||College of the Ozarks||$12,611|
|Brigham Young University||$20,146||Tougaloo College||$8,037|
|Tougaloo College||$23,101||William Carey University||$11,676|
|Allen University||$24,234||Huston-Tillotson University||$11,846|
|Goldey-Beacom College||$25,750||Hendrix College||$9,968|
|Shaw University||$29,734||Agnes Scott College||$13,420|
|Williams Baptist University||$31,390||Williams Baptist University||$14,571|
|Edward Waters University||$27,164||Oakland City University||$11,760|
|Stillman College||$28,052||Holy Family University||$11,935|
|Louisiana College||$28,540||Edward Waters University||$13,228|
|Brigham Young University-Hawaii||$21,867||Benedict College||$11,701|
|University of the Cumberlands||$24,884||Fairleigh Dickinson University-Metropolitan Campus||$12,305|
|Benedict College||$30,000||Saint Xavier University||$13,419|
|30% and under|
|Brigham Young University-Idaho||$12,880||Le Moyne-Owen College||$6,003|
|Le Moyne-Owen College||$20,176||Brigham Young University-Idaho||$6,327|
|Unity College||$25,320||Bethune-Cookman University||$11,717|
|Georgia Institute of Technology||$50,914||University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||$11,508|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||$52,633||University of California-Los Angeles||$13,393|
|University of California-Los Angeles||$66,051||Georgia Institute of Technology||$17,360|
|Eastern New Mexico University||$21,950||San Diego State University||$6,867|
|Alcorn State University||$23,812||Eastern New Mexico University||$7,002|
|The University of Montana-Western||$29,994||University of Florida||$9,809|
|Central State University||$22,442||CUNY Lehman College||$3,220|
|University of Minnesota-Crookston||$25,086||CUNY Bernard M Baruch College||$3,793|
|Chicago State University||$26,179||CUNY Hunter College||$4,586|
|Kentucky State University||$21,858||CUNY City College||$4,213|
|Mayville State University||$23,811||CUNY Queens College||$4,777|
|Jackson State University||$26,326||Kentucky State University||$7,492|
|Elizabeth City State University||$18,425||Elizabeth City State University||$4,085|
|Mississippi Valley State University||$21,260||Farmingdale State College||$6,007|
|Bemidji State University||$22,856||SUNY College at Old Westbury||$6,979|
|Minot State University||$19,806||California State University-Dominguez Hills||$4,500|
|Valley City State University||$24,790||Indiana University-Southeast||$6,344|
|University of Akron Main Campus||$25,824||University of North Texas at Dallas||$6,575|
|30% and under|
|University of North Carolina at Pembroke||$20,915||California State University-Los Angeles||$2,695|
|Mississippi University for Women||$21,679||California State University-San Bernardino||$3,254|
|Delta State University||$21,774||California State University-Monterey Bay||$6,085|
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