Securing a quality college education has become increasingly expensive over the past decade. Some students owe (without graduate school loans) a whopping $100,000 or even $150,000 upon graduating. For this reason, it's more important than ever to think which college makes financial sense for you. Here's a list of the top ten most affordable schools in the United States.
The list below includes state, Ivy League, liberal arts, engineering, and top-notch research colleges and universities.
Best Overall Value-Princeton University (NJ). Tuition and fees: $36,640; total cost per year: $49,780. Average student loan debt: $4,957.The number two undergraduate school, at least according to U.S. News & World Report, is also one of the best values. First, you get an Ivy education, which has its own obvious benefits: you'll get more interviews and have a good network and connections to people who can give you jobs.
For this reason, Princeton has a great return on investment: Over the course of 30 years, you can expect a net return on investment of $1,494,000. If you come from a poor or middle-class family, you can also expect a good amount of needs-based financial aid. According to Kiplinger, the average need-based financial aid package comes to roughly $33,428 per year. More so, the average student loan debt is a mere $4,957. Imagine going to one of the best schools in the world and owing less than $5,000 at the time of graduation. If there was ever an incentive to study for the SAT (or ACT) and excel at AP courses, this is it.
Runners-up: Yale University (CT), Duke University (VA), Columbia University (NY).
Best In-State Deal-University of California at Berkeley (CA). Tuition and fees (in-state): $10,868; tuition and fees (out-of-state): $33,747. Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the #22 undergraduate institution in the nation, UC-Berkeley is the best in-state value in the nation. (It's the top-ranked state university.) Every hiring manager will be impressed by your Berkeley degree. The university has a reputation for turning out good critical thinkers and problem solvers. Its 30-year net return on investment is roughly $1,167,000, meaning your annual return on investment is a whopping 12.9 percent.
Runners-up: University of Virginia, College of William and Mary (VA), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, SUNY-Binghamton (NY)
Top Non-Ivy/Non-Engineering School Deal-Dartmouth College (NH). Tuition and fees: $40,437. Average student loan debt: $19,081.Located in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth only ranks behind Ivy League schools, Stanford, MIT, and Caltech in U.S. News & World Report's top research universities rankings. The most surprising thing is that for a undergraduate population of 4,100, the school has a good scholarship fund. If you are a student in need of financial aid, expect very few financial packages as generous as Dartmouth's-the average need-based financial aid package totaled a staggering $35,209. This means the average Dartmouth student leaves undergrad owing $19,081, less than half a year's tuition! In addition to this, Dartmouth's 30-year net return on investment is huge-a staggering $1,622,000. That makes it one of the best deals in the nation.
Engineering School-California Institute of Technology (CA). Caltech beats out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two reasons: you'll likely earn more over thirty years of work with a Caltech degree ($1.7 million versus $1.5) and you even leave with nearly $7,000 less debt than if you went to MIT. Both schools share the #7 spot on the U.S. News and World Report rankings, ensuring that the two top engineering schools in the nation will be extremely difficulty to get into. Another (nonfinancial) plus: the weather in Pasadena is much nicer year-round than that of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Runner-up: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MA).
Liberal Arts College-Harvey Mudd College (CA). Tuition and fees: $40,390. Liberal arts colleges aren't known for their generous financial aid packages. These are expensive, but top-quality schools that prepare students for the challenges of the "real world." The place to go for a good and valuable liberal arts education is Harvey Mudd College. Harvey Mudd isn't only the "it" liberal arts college at the moment, being ranked #18 in U.S. News & World Report's National Liberal Arts College Rankings, it's also one of the most valuable degrees you can earn anywhere. Although the total cost for a Harvey Mudd degree for a student graduating in 2010 was over $200,000, the 30-year net return on investment is a staggering $1,622,000. (This is a 11.9% annual return on investment.) Maybe more important for the future job market, however, is that Harvey Mudd graduates are obtaining high rates of acceptance at top graduate schools across the country.
Runners-up: Swarthmore College (PA), Haverford College (PA), University of Richmond (VA).
Women's College-Wellesley College (MA). Tuition: $39,000. Wellesley beats Smith College for a few reasons. It's ranked higher in U.S. News & World Report's National Liberal Arts College rankings and it's roughly a thousand dollars cheaper per year than Smith. But, the 30-year net return on investment is the key: Wellesley's is $758,8000, whereas an expected return on investment is $465,400 at Smith. That's almost $10,000 more per year if you're a Wellesley graduate! If you're deciding between these two Seven Sisters schools, you may want to choose Wellesley for this reason.
Not-as-Competitive Engineering School-Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY). Tuition and fees: $54,035.
RPI is a wonderful school and a great overall value. Although the yearly tuition and fees are high, the average graduate leaves RPI owing less than a year's tuition and fees-$30,838. Moreover, both the average need-based and non-need-based financial aid packages are generous-$22,268 for the former and $14,086 for the latter. Of course RPI isn't ranked as high as MIT or Caltech, but it's #41 ranking in U.S. News & World Report is no joke. It's a serious school with a serious reputation. If you're thinking about gaining an excellent-and ultimately cheap-engineering education, RPI should be at the top of your list.
Runners-up: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA), Illinois Institute of Technology, Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ).
Undergraduate Business School-Babson College (MA). Total cost per year (2011-12 school year): $53,730.
Little known Babson College packs a huge financial punch. It has a better return on investment than both the University of California, Berkeley and Yale-a 30-year net return of $1,240,000. Although Babson's "unranked" by U.S. News & World Report, that doesn't mean much to those who hire Babson alum. On top of that, Babson's graduate program in Business Entrepreneurship is ranked #1 in the country (so imagine how good the professors are for undergraduates). If it's always been your dream to own a business, Babson may be the right place for you.
Runner-up: Villanova University
Not Impossible to Gain Admittance to-Lehigh University (PA). Total cost per year: $54,020.
With a 33% acceptance rate, Lehigh is definitely worth looking into. Another reason: it has a 30-year net return on investment of $1,308,000. Admissions is still competitive, but not to the extent of a Princeton or a UC-Berkeley. According to Lehigh's website, the incoming class of 2014's "SAT ranges of the middle 50% of admitted students were 610-710 for verbal and 660-740 for math. Though it's not required, the middle 50% of admitted students submitting ACT scores ranged from 29-32." These are achievable scores as long as you're properly preparing for the SAT and/or ACT.
Runners-up: Gettysburg College, Clarkson University, Clark University
Art School-Cooper Union (NY). Tuition: None. If you're admitted to Cooper Union (it's one of the most competitive college admissions in the world!), you benefit from having no tuition payments…ever! One of the premier art and engineering institutions in the nation, Cooper Union's Manhattan location exposes students to one of the most dynamic and influential art communities in the world. (Just think about all the museums at your disposal.) More so, Cooper Union's graduates are successful, with an average 30-year net return on investment of $880,500. If you've always wanted to be an artist but don't want to pay huge tuition bills, you should definitely shoot for Cooper Union.
Going to college doesn't mean paying back student loans for the rest of your life. If you are disciplined, do well throughout high school, prepare for and do well on the SAT and/or ACT , your college education could be a huge financial plus if you attend one of the schools listed above.
About the Author: Chris is an AP US History, SAT, and GRE instructor for Grockit. Chris holds both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in History from Clark University, a small research university in Massachusetts. He's just as excited to be a Grockiteer as he is about starting toward his Doctorate of Education in Social Studies Education at Teachers College, Columbia University this coming fall.
About Grockit: Grockit is a fun and engaging learning community that encourages students to learn from group study, game play, expert tutorials and solo study. Students that prepare with Grockit have proven to achieve higher scores on college admissions tests.
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