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 main flaw in most college rankings is that they tend to measure how prestigious institutions are rather than how effectively they serve their students. Indeed, many schools have moved up the U.S. News & World Report rankings by abandoning the students they traditionally serve in favor of recruiting “a better sort” by raising their admissions standards.

The Washington Monthly has long believed that such behavior by colleges doesn’t serve the broader interests of the country, and that rewarding such behavior is wrong. And so the magazine designed its own ranking system to do the opposite: to rate colleges based on how well they perform with the students they have, regardless of the students’ backgrounds or SAT scores, on metrics that measure the widely shared national goals of increasing social mobility, producing research, an inspiring public service.

One goal that has long been missing in the magazine’s rankings, however, is cost-effectiveness. After all, college may be a good investment, but not if you pay too much for it. Pursuing a college education still makes economic sense for most students, but that won’t be true for much longer if tuitions continue to rise, as they have for years, at rates faster even than health care costs.

So this year, the Washington Monthly rankings incorporate a new measure we call the “cost-adjusted graduation rate.” This involves tweaking the calculations the magazine has long used to derive a school’s social mobility score. In the past, we predicted a college’s graduation rate using the median SAT/ACT score of each school and the percentage of its students receiving Pell Grants and then compared it to the actual graduation rate. This year, we made two changes. First, to increase our ability to predict graduation rates, we used additional student and institutional characteristics, such as the percentage of students attending full time and the admit rate. Second, to get at cost-effectiveness, we took the gap between the predicted and actual graduation rate of a school and divided it by the net price of attending that institution. Net price represents the average price that first-time, full-time students pay after subtracting the need-based financial aid they receive.) The aim of our new cost-adjusted graduation rate is to highlight those colleges that use their resources to effectively educate students at a relatively low cost—and to call out those that burn though tuition dollars without much to show for it.

What did we find? First, that colleges and universities that do well by this measure tend to be public institutions. That’s not a surprise, given that tuition at these schools is kept relatively low by state subsidies (though per-student subsidies have been declining in many states). It also turns out that quite a few minority- serving institutions, such as the University of Texas-El Paso and Elizabeth City State University, score near the top of the list.

What may be surprising, however, is that some of the highly ranked universities from U.S. News, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Southern California, rank near the bottom. Even though these institutions have high graduation rates, the types of students that they enroll are already expected to graduate at high rates. Moreover, these schools tend to be expensive, with net prices that can top more than $30,000 per year.

Here are some examples of different kinds of colleges and universities that are able to graduate the students who can be the most difficult to get across the finish line at a relatively low average net price.

Research Universities

Predicted grad rate: 54%
Actual Grad Rate: 66%
Net Price: $7,817
Reason It Made the Cut: According to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, SDSU ranks twentieth in the nation for bachelor’s degrees conferred on ethnic minorities.

With a predicted graduation rate of 54 percent and an actual graduation rate of 66 percent, SDSU does an impressive job at graduating students given their demographics. This is due in part to a concerted effort by the university to collect and analyze data about its students. With data in hand, SDSU is better able to identify where students run into roadblocks and develop interventions that result in improved outcomes. These interventions include mandatory orientation for first-year and transfer students, special programs for low-income and first-generation college students, a dedicated office for the retention and success of students, and a strong partnership with San Diego’s local public schools to ensure that students in the pipeline arrive prepared.

Predicted grad rate:49%
Actual Grad Rate: 63%
Net Price: $10,207
Reason It Made the Cut: Rutgers-Newark is a public, urban, nonflagship university that attracts mostly commuter students. Despite its nontraditional student population, its graduation rate is 14 points better than predicted.

According to U.S. News, Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse national university in the United States, with no racial group able to claim majority representation on campus. Its diversity, location, and relatively affordable tuition have attracted a growing student body, adding 3,000 students in less than a decade. As enrollments grow, Rutgers-Newark has pledged to remain accessible to large numbers of first-generation college students. To maintain this mission, the university actively recruits in the city of Newark, where one-quarter of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is approximately $35,000. The university’s Academic Foundations Center houses both pre-college and undergraduate programs to provide outreach and support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help ensure their success.

Master’s Colleges

Predicted grad rate:39%
Actual Grad Rate: 51%
Net Price: $5,590
Reason It Made the Cut: Although Fresno State’s graduation rate may seem low, this Hispanic-serving institution (HSI) performs 12 points better than predicted.

Approximately 38 percent of the students at Fresno State are Hispanic, and 52 percent receive Pell Grants. Many of the university’s students are the first in their family to go to college. While these characteristics normally yield a student population that is difficult to graduate, Fresno State does relatively well getting their students across the graduation stage. As a member of the Presidents’ Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, Fresno State has committed to gathering, reporting on, and using evidence to improve student learning. Using data has helped the institution to see where students fall through the cracks—those who are between their second and third years, especially those who lack connections and relationships with their major department. With this knowledge, department chairs reach out to every student between their second and third years to act as a point of contact and to provide support.

Predicted grad rate:33%
Actual Grad Rate: 48%
Net Price: $6,675
Reason It Made the Cut: With 48 percent of incoming students receiving Pell Grants, this institution has a substantial difference between its actual versus predicted graduation rate.

As an urban, commuter institution, the College of Staten Island attracts a diverse group of students from the New York City metro area. Because of the difficulty in retaining commuter students, the college offers many programs to enrich students’ academic lives and provide incentives for them to stay invested in finishing their degree.

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.