September/October 2012 America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges

In this year's rankings, we show which schools get their students over the finish line at a reasonable price.

By Rachel Fishman and Robert Kelchen

The SEEK program, offered through the City University of New York, helps underprepared students by offering them academic support and financial assistance. In addition, the college has three honors programs, including the Macaulay Honors College University Scholars Program for incoming freshmen who pursue their degree full time. These scholars receive a full tuition scholarship and participate in research projects. They are also provided an additional $7,500 fund as an incentive to study abroad and do in-depth research.

Baccalaureate Colleges

Predicted grad rate:19%
Actual Grad Rate: 42%
Net Price: $1,442
Reason It Made the Cut: While a graduation rate of 42 percent may seem low, Elizabeth City State, a public, historically black university, only has a predicted rate of 19 percent. ECSU is doing much better than predicted, and at a very low net price.

Part of ECSU’s mission is to provide a studentcentered environment, delivered in a manner that enhances student learning. The university has many academic initiatives, including a summer school program
to help underprepared students get on track so they arrive in the fall ready to succeed. ECSU recently expanded this program and saw enrollment increase from 1,358 in 2009 to 3,118 in 2010. In addition to a summer program, the university maintains more than twenty other academic programs, including “Motivation, Opportunities, Determination, Excellence and Leadership (MODEL) Scholars,” GEAR-UP, Mathematics and Science Education Network, Upward Bound, and TRiO Programs.

Predicted grad rate:38%
Actual Grad Rate: 68%
Net Price: $9,854
Reason It Made the Cut: College of the Ozarks has a relatively low net price and one of the largest differences between predicted and actual graduation rates.

The mission of College of the Ozarks is to provide the advantages of a Christian education to youth who are without sufficient means to procure such education. Similar to Berea (see below), instead of paying tuition, all full-time students work approximately fifteen hours per week on campus to subsidize their education, allowing them to graduate debt free. Ozarks students can work an additional forty hours per week during summer breaks to help cover the cost of room and board, potentially bringing their total cost of attendance to zero. Additionally, students are expected to complete their academic program within eight semesters and require special approval from the dean of the college to extend up to a maximum of two semesters. This policy helps to ensure that students graduate on time. But College of the Ozarks has a low acceptance rate (9 percent) and a small enrollment (1,377 students), reaching only a very specific population of students.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Predicted grad rate:50%
Actual Grad Rate: 64%
Net Price: N/A
Reason It Made the Cut: In addition to an extremely low net price, the gap between the predicted and actual grad rates is 16 points.

Since its founding in 1855, Berea College’s scriptural foundation, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” has shaped the institution’s programs and culture. Part of Berea’s mission today is to provide educational opportunity to students primarily from Appalachia who have great promise and limited economic resources. As a result, more than half of Berea students are first-generation college students, and the average family income for an incoming student is $29,273. All students receive a four-year scholarship worth up to $96,400, and every student works approximately ten to fifteen hours per week to earn money to cover the cost of books and food. It is important to note, however, that admission to Berea is highly selective. Even though this college does a great job considering the students it enrolls, its capacity is small.

Predicted grad rate:28%
Actual Grad Rate: 54%
Net Price: $7,485
Reason It Made the Cut: With an average student age of thirty-six, Granite State serves mostly adult, nontraditional students through a variety of flexible degree programs.

Granite State College is one of the four institutions that comprise the University System of New Hampshire. In addition to being New Hampshire’s leader in delivering online higher education, Granite State’s primary mission is to serve as the system’s college for adults. The college’s open admissions policy and multiple academic centers throughout the state ensure that its reach is broad. And by offering flexible degree programs in high-demand fields and credit for prior learning, the college makes it possible for students to balance the responsibilities of school, work, and family. Granite State also offers intensive classes to help accelerate the path to a degree, like a course that spans only four weekends or six Saturdays instead of twelve to fifteen weeks.

Rachel Fishman and Robert Kelchen collaborated on this article. Fishman is a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Kelchen is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison's Department of Educational Policy Studies.


  • Carolyn Lawrence on August 27, 2012 9:03 AM:

    There is no college named "San Diego University." Are you talking about San Diego STATE University? Your rankings are suspect if you can't even get the name of the school right.

  • Kevin Ott on September 07, 2012 9:55 PM:

    Not sure where the reference but there is indeed a University of San Diego as well as a SDSU...

  • Marybeth Melendez on September 21, 2012 4:20 PM:

    Dear Washington Magazine:
    I was so deeply moved and honored upon reading your article,"Bang for your buck Colleges and Universities" that it prompted me to reach out and share my story with you.
    Allow me the opportunity to introduce myself to you. My name is Marybeth Melendez and I am a legally blind single mother of three children and a second year graduate student in the clinical mental health program at The City University of NY The College of Staten Island.
    In the spring of 2008,at age 42 I decided to enter into the world of higher education. Knowing fully well that in order to compete in todays market place and establish a future for myself and my children, I needed to arm myself with a marketable degree. And so, with nothing more than 25.00 in my bank account and a deep desire to succeed I nervously and wholeheartedly registered for classes at The College of Sstaten Island.Three years later in June of 2011 I graduated from my beloved institution at the top of my class with an Associates, Degree inn the Applied Sciences, Cume Laude status, a Double Bacaloriate Degree in the fields of Psychology and Sociology with a minor in Philosophy;Magna Cume and Suma Cume Laude Status. Wherein I earned a full scholarship and my place within the Masters in Mental Health Program at CSI.
    Although my academic journey has been a successful one, it has also been one filled with laborious challanges. As a single mother of three living on a fixed income and a newly registered student with a visual disability, the economic,academic and technological cards were stacked against me. There were textbooks that needed to be purchased and transcribed into accessable format for the blind. Scribes to be hired to not only take but to convert detailed classroom notes and lectures into an electronic document progran that was compatable with screen reader technology Exams to be read. A computer to buy.Low Vision Technology to purchase tuition to be paid and a famly to provide for with absolutely no money.
    In steps n the Office of Disability Services now the Center for Student Accessability under the leadership of the director Mr. Christopher Cruz-Cullari and Sara Paul Ms. Donna Brahms,s of the financial aide office,Dr. Geoffrey Hempill of the Career and Scholarship Department,The coordinator for student development Mr. Robert Kee, Carol Brower Director of Student life, Miriam Perez of SEEK, Jennifer Lynch of the Alumni Dept. --all whom cohesively mentored helped and guided me throughout these years. Countless faculty/Professores , who pushed me further than I could have ever imagined: Dr's Melendez,Salhanny,Costa,Asanbe,Sussman, Goode, Gusso and Principe just to name a few, Dedicated staff Sheryll Porter, Maria Testori, Gloria Alfono, Irene Mucciarello Angela Ramos, Ellen Freeman, Claire Kissenger, whom together worked diligently, passionaltely to assist , provide services,level both the economic and academic playing field so that I and countless others can succeed.
    So I thank you my beloved College of Staten Island for providing me with a world class affordable education--for providing me with a chance to build a better tomorrow for myself and my children ..
    And thank you Washington Magazine for sharing with the world what I and countless others at CUNY already knew. CSI you are a world class institution and the impetus for so many of our CUNY success stories!

  • Rita Burke on September 29, 2012 11:04 AM:

    Interesting sample. Is there a full list of bang for the buck colleges available? Thanks

  • publius on September 29, 2012 11:49 PM:

    This is a list of four relatively inexpensive colleges that serve minorities and ethnic groups well. The list really has little to do with getting "The Best Bang for the Buck."

    It would be better if you were more honest.

    I suggest: "Four Colleges Doing Great With Ethnics and Minorities."

    Of course, that would reduce the number of "hits" on this article by about 90%.

  • Wei on January 08, 2013 1:16 PM:

    I go to the College of Staten Island and I have to pay over 3,000 dollars for one BS semester WTF! And I got no pell grant or financial aid! BS! And im in Remedial classes!

  • Michael on January 09, 2013 10:49 AM:

    Remedial classes cost the same as "mainstream" classes. The school still has to pay teachers, janitors, admin staff, etc. regardless of whether or not you're in a remedial class or not. They can't be at a discounted rate/free. It serves as a lesson to high school students to work as hard in high school to avoid paying for basic skills classes in college.

  • Andrea Curry on February 20, 2013 8:19 PM:

    I'm so glad to see CSI being mentioned in such a bright light. I've learned so much at CSI not just in my classes, but also in all the magnificent leadership opurtunities I have received here. I feel confident when I graduate with my double major in psychology and literature I will be fully capable to face the world. Many schools do not keep to the promises mentioned in there pledge. I'm very proud to say my college is not one of those institutions.