Top 3 Cheapest Colleges by Acceptance Rates

(See list of cheapest colleges by acceptance rates at end of post.) Budget, affordable, bargain, best value are all different ways at getting at what are the cheapest colleges in the United States? There are multiple options you can use as the number to rank colleges to determine which is the most affordable. More on that later. And some lists will actually divide schools up by geography which can be useful. But do you know what is the most useful way to classify value colleges regardless of how you define value? Acceptance rates.

Click HERE to download the list as a PDF

We’re talking about college admissions here. Even if everyone could potentially be accepted by Harvard, Harvard has only a limited number of seats available so 99.something percentage are going to be rejected. Yet, the fact is that most students wouldn’t meet Harvard admissions requirements (which is not to say they wouldn’t be able succeed at Harvard). Therefore, if doesn’t matter if Harvard has the best financial aid that would significantly lower the cost of attendance since most students can’t get in!

Consider Consumers Reports car rankings. They don’t compare luxury cars with mid-range sedans. It doesn’t matter to the reader if the luxury car may or may not be the best car on the market. Readers want to know which is the best car among those they can afford.

The same is true of colleges. Students and families want to know which are the most affordable among those that are likely to accept the student. The reality is that there are plenty of students who aren’t in the top 10% of their class who would like to go to college as well. Imagine that!

How I created my list of cheapest colleges by acceptance rates

So I thought I would make an attempt at ranking the cheapest or most affordable or best value colleges by acceptance rates. First thing to know is that in no way can this be considered statistically valid. Basically, I’m just trying to create groups based on acceptance rates and then find the cheapest college. My groups aren’t the same size since there are only 149 schools that accept less than 50% of students out of 1,243 4-year colleges with at least 500 full-time undergraduates. If I wanted to keep groups roughly equal in terms of size, I would have some really wide ranges, say under 50%, and some really small ones like 72-74%. Not very useful.

I can’t really argue that mine are more useful. The ten percent intervals I had to resort to at the upper end probably doesn’t represent significant differences between the group before and after. But like I said it’s a start. And it’s really not difficult for people to create their own groups of schools by acceptance rates using a spreadsheet.

There are some other factors to consider when using my groups. 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 or health professions. I did keep the engineering and business schools since they have more options (in my opinion) which I think would appeal to a wider audience. I also excluded the obvious gimmees like the military academies.

How to decide what is cheap?

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 as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. 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.

Because of the differences between public and private institutions, I created separate lists for each. I have 7 acceptance categories and listed the 3 most affordable schools in each. These are the acceptance rates categories: 1-20%; 21-40%; 41-60%; 61-70%; 71-80%; 81-90%; 91% and up.

Where can you find the cheapest colleges by acceptance rates?

Using the Total Cost of Attendance for comparison, Mississippi has the most bargain schools based on sticker price with six on the list. North Carolina is second with five and Kentucky and North Carolina tie with three each. Overall, the colleges with the lowest sticker price can be found in 26 states. The private colleges are in 18 states while the public are in only 11.

When you use the average net price for ranking the cheapest colleges, the number of states drops to just 19. Only Mississippi and North Carolina still remain on the list from the top three states ranked by sticker price. Based on average net price, New York has the most affordable schools with 8. California ranks second with 7 and Arkansas and Florida tie for third with 3 each. The private schools are located in 17 states while the public are limited to just 9 states.

What kind of colleges rank highest as bargains by acceptance rates?

Five of the private schools that ranked on the Total Cost List also made it onto the cheapest colleges by acceptance rates Average Net Price list. Among public schools, six schools appear on both the Total Cost List and the Average Net Price list. One thing that stands out about the schools on the list is the number of Historically Black Universities that rank in the top three. There are eight HBUs on the list, six private and two public.


The cheapest colleges by acceptance rates on the list range in size from just over 500 full-time graduates to over 31,000. As usual, most of the colleges on the list are on the smaller size since most colleges in general are smaller. A total of 23 were 5,000 or fewer students, with 21 being under 2,500. Twelve are over 10,000 and only seven fall in the Goldilocks’ range between 5,000 and 10,000.


Given the school sizes, it’s not surprising that Doctoral Universities was the smallest group with just 17 schools. Eight are private and nine are public. The rest of the schools on the cheapest college list were almost evenly split between Baccalaureate Colleges with 28 schools and Master’s Colleges & Universities with 26 schools. Only 7 of the Baccalaureate Colleges are classified as Liberal Arts Colleges. A total of 16 of the Master’s Colleges & Universities are listed as Larger Programs.

Graduation Rates

The graduation rates for the colleges that made the list have four-year graduation rates as low as 5% to a high of 87%. Of the 71 schools, 53 had graduation rates less than 50%. It’s not easy to say if the graduation rates on the list are generally higher or lower than those in the acceptance group as a whole. Some are higher than the group average, others are lower. Given that I’m not going for statistical reliability here, I leave it to the user to make more detailed comparisons.

Cheapest colleges by acceptance rates

The following table lists the top three colleges ranked as the cheapest in its acceptance group category. Click HERE to download list with school size and graduation rates.

Cheapest by Total Price Cheapest by Average Net Price
Name Total Price Name Net Price
St. Andrews University $49,100 Columbia University $12,411
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art $68,708 Harvard University $13,910
Rice University $71,745 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
91% and up
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
91% and up
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
Michelle Kretzschmar

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Michelle Kretzschmar

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