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50-50 Highlights: 41 Best Financial Bets for Public Universities

college graduate holding moneyI’ve created two lists of colleges to target for merit aid, one consisting of only 50-50 schools and a more general list taking into consideration test scores. Since all the colleges on the lists are private schools, I thought I would create a list best financial bets for 50-50 public universities. As I started looking at the schools, I realized that the criteria I used for the private colleges didn’t exactly apply to the public universities.

With the private schools it is pretty much a matter of following the money and to a certain extent, geography. The same process didn’t work for me when looking at public schools for several reasons that I won’t bother with speculating on here. The point is that I had to come up with a different approach.

I started by awarding points for different categories and then used the totals to rank the public 50-50 schools. I did something similar when looking for colleges for my son. For example, a school received one point if at least 70% of freshman received institutional aid. Schools lost a point if they had more than 10% of freshman taking out non-federal loans with an average over $10,000.

I ended up with nine categories. Basically I kept adding categories because my “top” list was either too short or too long–nothing scientific I assure you. At nine categories, I finally got what I considered a useful list of best public universities for financial aid without being overwhelming.

As I was looking at my final list of 41 50-50 schools, I realized that “negative” categories had virtually no effect on the selection with the exception of two schools. Inclusion on the list was based on three categories.

The first was almost mandatory except for one school, the average net price after gift aid had to be less than $15,000. Out of 157 public 50-50 schools, 76 met this qualification.

However, while low average net price was necessary, it wasn’t sufficient to make the top 41. The universities that made it into the final list of best public universities for financial aid also either had a high percentage of freshman receiving institutional aid or had an average federal loan for freshman below $5,500. There were only three institutions that had these qualifications and didn’t make the list because of high non-federal loans.

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Of the 41 colleges on the list, 26 may be good possibilities for merit aid since 70% or more freshman received institutional grants or 50% or more received an average institutional grant of $5,000 or more. When over 70% of students are receiving institutional aid, it’s not likely to be all need based and $5,000 makes a significant dent in state tuition.

This isn’t going to be true in all cases. When public institutions have a high percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, there’s a good chance that the money is pretty much being awarded based on need.

I looked up the actual percentage of freshman without any need receiving merit money on CollegeData.com for the five schools with the highest average institutional gift aid.* All except one school were providing merit aid to non-need students.

Best public universities for financial aidThe exception was the University of California Merced were 63% of freshman are receiving Pell Grants. This means that while it may not be a likely choice for merit aid, it’s probably a great opportunity for those with financial need. According to CollegeData.com, UC Merced met 89% of freshman need, which is excellent for a public institution.

The 15 schools that didn’t have notable institutional aid still had average federal loans below $5,500. For whatever reason, even though freshman at these universities aren’t getting as much institutional aid, they aren’t taking out larger loans to make up for it.

I’ve listed the 41 schools in the table below. These are 50-50 schools only. You may take a look at the schools and think of 10 better schools to replace those already on the list. That’s fine with me. I’m making no claims that this list is in any way definitive or statistically significant. All I’m saying is that I found the numbers for these schools to be interesting enough that they’re worth more investigation.

*The data I use for my spreadsheet is from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System. It does not separate institutional gift aid by need and merit (non-need). The Common Data Set used by CollegeData.com provides this information.

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41 Best 50-50 Financial Bets for Public Universities
(download PDF version for limited time)

5 yr
% Freshman Receiving
Pell Grants
% Freshman Receiving Institutional
Avg Amount
of Institutional Grants for
Avg Net
Price After
Gift Aid
Appalachian State UniversityNC15115642434338410203
Arizona State University-PolytechnicAZ2789513174645912611
Arizona State University-TempeAZ34989552985804912380
Arizona State University-WestAZ2694504788734410072
Central Michigan UniversityMI17880513567657112936
Colorado State University-Fort CollinsCO20400592445516913487
Indiana University-BloomingtonIN31050741946868211361
Iowa State UniversityIA26177632175539714095
Massachusetts College of Liberal ArtsMA1353544861376713600
New College of FloridaFL7936425100465212018
North Carolina State University at RaleighNC21469682152611812129
Oklahoma State University-Main CampusOK17793552772607514415
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Lehigh ValleyPA719514147227812539
Pennsylvania State University-Penn State New KensingtonPA524513272317214754
SUNY College at PotsdamNY3596494673154213364
Texas A & M University-College StationTX39641752658591711323
Texas State UniversityTX2568351366274512358
The Evergreen State CollegeWA3766533273389713147
The University of Texas at DallasTX10635592672103778064
Towson UniversityMD16588612234558213945
Truman State UniversityMO5375702398500913060
University of ArizonaAZ28401583072895714070
University of California-MercedCA5776496373988611649
University of California-RiversideCA18205625676839211351
University of California-Santa CruzCA15323695171828713748
University of DelawareDE16852791451767114398
University of GeorgiaGA24746802118716212862
University of Illinois at ChicagoIL15402515465647911645
University of KentuckyKY19884552559753114839
University of Maine at FarmingtonME1783534973314113649
University of Maryland-Baltimore CountyMD9508592150748914321
University of Minnesota-MorrisMN1815613482429414536
University of MississippiMS15628542657654314409
University of North Carolina at AshevilleNC3129562659390011263
University of North Carolina WilmingtonNC11408682143246112089
University of Northern IowaIA9330622559312914299
University of VermontVT97647520901197615793
University of Washington-Bothell CampusWA343261394560269400
University of Washington-Seattle CampusWA2705078223183619559
University of Wisconsin-Eau ClaireWI9508602641110512940
Western Washington UniversityWA12942642336415114253