Features

September/ October 2013 Standout Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Schools

By Devin Castles, Katelyn Fossett, and Ben Florsheim

CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FULLERTON (CA)

Predicted grad rate: 47%
Actual grad rate: 50%
Net price: $3,489

Reason it made the cut: CSUF ranks eighth in the nation for bachelor’s degrees awarded to minority students, according to the magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

After expanding its enrollment cap in 2003, CSUF grew rapidly and is now the largest campus in the CSU system, serving a small city—30,782—of undergraduates. Amid this accelerated growth, it has maintained a better-than-predicted graduation rate for its students while offering relatively small class sizes (only 10 percent of classes have more than fifty students). One key to CSUF’s success has been to use data to track student performance and identify early on those students who are at risk of falling behind. CSUF deans and academic advisers then reach out to those populations and help to link them to the tools they need to succeed. And while CSUF has not escaped the budget cuts of the last few years that have forced public universities in California to raise tuition rates, it has made an effort to ensure that low-income students continue to receive generous financial aid and nearly $2 million in scholarships and awards every year. The university also offers eight federally funded undergraduate research training programs through its College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA KEARNEY (NE)

Predicted grad rate: 51%
Actual grad rate: 61%
Net price: $8,940

Reason it made the cut: UNK has managed to outperform its predicted graduation rate by 10 points, partly by providing exceptional assistance to low-income and first-generation college students.

As one of five institutions in the University of Nebraska system, the university maintains a strong commitment to the regional community, including a partnership with Kearney Public Schools that has helped lower the childhood obesity rate in the area. Another program, Kearney Bound, works with local high schools to prepare first-generation students for college. If those students make it to UNK, the university covers their tuition, books, and living expenses and offers an array of support services. UNK provides similar support to its low-income students—roughly 40 percent of UNK’s 5,442 undergraduates receive Pell Grants—through the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO program, which provides counseling and assistance with everything from filling out financial aid forms to enrolling in the right classes. UNK also offers a robust catalog of online learning opportunities with its highly ranked eCampus for nontraditional students with families and full-time jobs.

APPALACHIAN STATE UNIVERSITY (NC)

Predicted grad rate: 63%
Actual grad rate: 65%
Net price: $7,077

Reason it made the cut: With a robust student support network, Appalachian State serves the regional population and graduates the majority of its low-income students without debt.

Founded in 1899 as a teacher’s college and integrated into the University of North Carolina system in 1972, ASU’s mission has always been to broaden access to education in a region long blighted by poverty. To that end, the school has developed a program called Appalachian Commitment to a College Education for Student Success (ACCESS), which supplements federal financial aid to cover the full cost of education—tuition, fees, and room and board—for low-income students for four years. In conjunction with other programs, ACCESS also provides an individually tailored support program for each student, which includes counseling, tutoring, and links to paid internships and careers. More than 60 percent of ACCESS students graduate without student loan debt, and, impressively, 70 percent of the first ACCESS cohort with academic support graduated within five years.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, RIVERSIDE (CA)

Predicted grad rate: 61%
Actual grad rate: 67%
Net price: $9,224

Reason it made the cut: UC Riverside boasts nearly identical graduation rates for Pell recipients and non-Pell recipients.

At about 57 percent, the proportion of students at UC Riverside on Pell Grants is one of the highest in the nation—and its graduation rate outstrips the predicted rate by 6 points. Part of that extraordinary success rate is due to student support programs that specifically reach out to low-income, remedial, or nontraditional students juggling family and work obligations. In addition, other university programs, like the Pathway Project, help pave the way for regional community college students to transfer to the university in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, by reaching out to potential transfer students with internships and workshops that prepare them for university-level work and future careers. Once those students arrive at UC Riverside, they’re provided with additional tools, including counseling, tutoring, and help securing financial aid—all factors that help them navigate their path to graduation.

CUNY QUEENS COLLEGE (NY)

Predicted grad rate: 49%
Actual grad rate: 53%
Net price: $2,757

Reason it made the cut: With an array of programs to support largely minority, low-income, and nontraditional students, Queens College is making the diversity of its students one of its best assets.

Despite a growing applicant pool and increasing selectivity, Queens College has maintained a commitment to admit a student body that reflects the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its New York City borough. To that end, a number of programs at Queens College aim to attract and support minority and low-income students. One program, Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge, begins with intensive workshops for underprepared students struggling with remedial math and English. When they complete those courses, they are organized into learning communities for sustained support throughout their time at the college. Another program, Minority Access to Research Careers, aims to close the minority gap in STEM fields by providing minority and low-income students special exposure to undergraduate research and upping their chances of being accepted into biomedical graduate research programs.

UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL FLORIDA (FL)

Predicted grad rate: 62%
Actual grad rate: 63%
Net price: $8,825

Reason it made the cut: Despite rapid growth and an up-and-coming reputation, the second-largest university in the U.S. has made a concerted effort to keep its net price low.

With its student body growing by 60 percent and operating costs more than doubling since 2000, the cost of attending UCF has increased, but, given the vast resources and diversity its expansion has brought, both its value proposition and selectivity have improved as well. In 2011, Newsweek listed it as one of the top ten national universities least likely to leave graduates in debt. UCF also does a superior job graduating Hispanic and African American students, thanks to an array of dedicated programs, like Brother to Brother, that provide minorities, first-generation students, and underrepresented demographics with additional support for navigating both academics and campus life. In addition, the Burnett Honors College admits 500 outstanding incoming freshmen to a program with a small-school feel but big-school resources on this campus of 60,000. Elsewhere, UCF’s laundry list of preprofessional and professional programs contributes to its large population of adult students—a quarter of the student body is twenty-five or older.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY-RALEIGH (NC)

Predicted grad rate: 68%
Actual grad rate: 72%
Net price: $7,345

Reason it made the cut: While the more selective members of North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” in Durham and Chapel Hill attract the lion’s share of attention, NCSU, the largest of the three, offers underrated value.

With Duke University and the University of North Carolina thriving on outstanding academic and research reputations (and with UNC offering an impressive value proposition itself—see our complete list), NCSU might seem like a third wheel. But the Raleigh campus offers resources commensurate to, or exceeding, the others at an astonishingly low net cost for a flagship research institution. A member of the federal TRIO program, NCSU offers a series of outreach and support services to students, including a Talent Search program that provides hands-on counseling to thousands of middle and high school students in the state and offers educational assistance to those with the potential to succeed at the college level. Once they get to NCSU, Student Support Services continues to reach out with tutoring, career counseling, and financial aid advice, helping to deliver better-than-expected graduation rates.

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, MORRIS (MN)

Predicted grad rate: 60%
Actual grad rate: 60%
Net price: $9,255

Reason it made the cut: One of the only public liberal arts schools in the nation, UMM ranks just behind cash-rich Amherst and Williams for bang for the buck among schools of its type.

Morris students, a third of whom are first-generation college-goers, shoulder the lowest debt burden in the University of Minnesota system, and among the lowest in the Midwest. The public school price tag, in tandem with a low student-to-faculty ratio of 15 to 1 and other private/liberal arts school attributes, makes Morris a unique value proposition. And if a liberal arts degree may not seem like the most efficient ticket to social mobility in a depressed economy, consider this: 94 percent of recent Morris grads either went on to pursue advanced degrees or found employment within a year of leaving school, which they attribute to the resources, reputation, and connections that the campus enjoys as part of the University of Minnesota system. In addition to being able to choose from thirty-five different liberal arts majors, Morris’s 1,900 students can select from eight preprofessional programs like engineering and nursing, as well as an online learning program—reminders of that public school status and network despite the school’s small size and capacity.

Devin Castles, Katelyn Fossett, and Ben Florsheim are all interns at the Washington Monthly.

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