MONEY College

How to Find the Best College for Your Money

Leah Fasten The bike-friendly campus of No. 1 Stanford University.

Help finding the right school at the right price.

When it comes to picking a college, the quest for value has taken center stage. Schools are handing out brochures touting their job-placement records (without much to back up the stats). New programs let you test your way to a degree for just a few thousand dollars. And so far this year, Americans have searched Google using the words “college” and “value” 1.1 million times a month, a 10% jump over 2014.

Even the government is getting into the act, or trying to. In June the Obama administration succumbed to two years of opposition from colleges and abandoned efforts to rate them based on value. Instead, it will simply launch web tools in the fall that will let you screen colleges by data such as tuition, graduation rates, and post-graduate success. Meanwhile, 2016 presidential candidates on both the left and the right are appealing to voters with promises of helping students graduate “debt-free” or get “workforce-ready” degrees.

See MONEY’s full Best Colleges rankings

The reason for this heightened focus on value is obvious to anyone who has priced out college recently. Even after accounting for the typical amount of financial aid and tax breaks, the total cost of a BA from a public university will come to about $75,000; at a private college the average family should budget for $115,000-plus. Not likely to be eligible for aid? That bill could top $250,000.

The result: high anxiety among families about the value proposition of a college education. In a recent survey for CreditCards.com, 31% of adults reported losing sleep over college costs. “The debate has moved front and center as college has gotten more expensive,” says Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at think tank New America. “Students are investing all of this time and money in their future, and they wonder, What am I actually getting?”

To help parents and students answer that question, MONEY has once again set out to find great schools that are truly worth the investment. With our second annual Best Colleges rankings, we’ve identified more than 700 colleges that deliver a quality education that launches students on a successful career at a price your family can afford.

Mark Schneider, former head of the National Center for Education Statistics and current president of College Measures, collaborated with MONEY to develop the rankings, which evaluate the schools on 21 measures of educational quality, affordability, and career earnings. The careers website PayScale.com provided earnings data for the schools’ alumni, as well as analysis of those earnings based on what types of majors predominate at the schools. (You can find the full methodology behind our college rankings here.)

TK_COL_Standford_Lab

“The Farm,” as Stanford students refer to their vast campus, grows high earners.

Coming in at No. 1 this year is Stanford University, where innovative teaching, generous aid policies, and average alumni earnings well above even Ivy League standards combine to give students an educational experience that shines on all counts. But our Best Colleges list also underscores that it’s not just elite institutions that can deliver a great education and a leg up in the workforce—at a price you can handle. Our rankings include many places that don’t typically show up on best lists, such as College of the Ozarks (No. 26), where students work in lieu of paying tuition, and Maine Maritime Academy (No. 8), a public college specializing in business, engineering, and marine biology. “A school’s name isn’t everything. Results are,” says Schneider. “You may be surprised that schools you may never have heard of will give you a better shot at success.”

As you browse our rankings, keep a few things in mind. Some of the data used to evaluate colleges are imperfect. The test scores of incoming freshmen are self-reported by colleges. The earnings estimates are based on voluntary surveys. Plus, schools within 20 or so places of one another are roughly the same, especially at the top. But paired with your own research and visits, these rankings can be a valuable guide to where your tuition will go the furthest.

The best-value colleges aren’t necessarily the cheapest. But studies show, and our rankings confirm, that key aspects of the college experience are worth paying more for. So as you set out to find the best college fit for your student, pay attention to these five important signs that a school is a true value.

1. Help Getting You to the Goal

At its most basic, the job of a good college is to enable students to get a degree, preferably in the four years that’s promised. Sounds simple, and yet it’s a high hurdle at many colleges—on average, only 39% of students graduate in four years. Even finishing in six—the standard gauge calculated by the federal government—can be a challenge.

With how much you’ve learned in college tough to judge, a school’s graduation rate is generally recognized as the most important measure of educational quality. In part, that’s because students who feel that a college is wasting their time will vote with their feet. But it also reflects a reality. “The best school you can go to is the best one you can graduate from,” says New America’s Fishman.

Graduation rates are also one of the most important predictors of later success. Less than 1% of students who attend the schools with the 100 highest graduation rates on our list default on their student loans. The default rate for the schools at the bottom of our list: 8%.

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Reflecting the critical importance of this measure in the value equation, we put almost a quarter of our ranking weights on graduation rates. Graduation rates also figure prominently in another one of our measures: net price of a degree. That’s because when you need more time to graduate, college becomes even more costly. So our estimate for the net price of a degree takes into account the time it takes for students to graduate from that school, as well as typical financial aid awards.

How to spot value: The best schools graduate more than what’s average—65% at private colleges, 58% at public. Check on what support your student will get, including tutoring or counseling and enough spaces in required classes.

TK_COL_RMorris_student
TK_COL_RMorris_Hospital

The career-focused majors at Robert Morris, such as nursing (above) and computer networking (top), pay off.

2. A Push to Exceed Expectations

You may be aiming for the best college your child can get into. But tours and marketing materials, not to mention data on the average student, won’t tell you if that college will do the best job with a kid like yours. That’s why MONEY developed what we call a value-added measure. We looked at how well students of a particular institution do in three key measures—graduation rate, student loan defaults, and post-college earnings—compared with schools whose students had similar high school grades and similar economic backgrounds as measured by the percentage of low-income students attending.

Our rankings reveal plenty of schools that give students a remarkable boost. Consider our No. 1 Value All-Star, Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, which accepts students with spotty high school records and graduates them at almost twice the rate of schools with similar standards. The small classes and personal attention from professors inspired Trevor Kimlick of New Paris, Ind., who graduated near the bottom of his high school class, to buckle down and focus on schoolwork and his career. He made the Dean’s list in his first semester, despite working more than 20 hours a week, and he graduated into a job he loves—as a planner for the Menards hardware store chain. While Trevor could have gone to a cheaper college, and he and his family will be paying off the tuition loans for many years to come, they say they got value for their dollars. “It was an investment” says Trevor’s father, Vincent.

How to spot value: Use our value-added grades as a screening tool. You can also look up graduation rates by race and gender at Collegeresults.org. Talk to students at the school who share characteristics with your student to see how they fare at the school.

3. A Blend of Practical Skills and Smarts

It’s a conundrum. Studying liberal arts typically makes it harder to find a good job out of the gate. But sticking to pre­professional coursework is risky too. Four years ago a rising freshman eager to qualify for a high-paying job might have majored in petroleum engineering. But he or she would graduate today into a job market in which oil companies are laying off thousands, notes Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School and author of the book Will College Pay Off? “Timing the job market is virtually impossible,” he says.

Saying you have to choose between a liberal arts and a preprofessional degree, though, “is kind of dumbing down the conversation. It’s not either/or. It is and,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup’s education division. A school that balances academics with real-world practicality is the best value. In a 2013 Hart Research Associates survey, most employers said the most successful workers had both field-specific and broad skills and knowledge.

Read MONEY’s full Best Colleges rankings

When Edlyn Wang told her high school friends she would be going to Babson College, one wrote in her yearbook, “Good luck at that college you made up,” the 2012 grad recalls. But Babson, a business school where about half the course load is liberal arts, has gained attention for its high-earn­ing grads. The college was ­MONEY’s 2014 best value and ranks No. 2 this year. Wang, now a buyer for Ross Stores, says her mix of classes—­financial analysis as well as writing—gives her an edge.

Overall, Babson alums report earning $60,100 within five years of graduation, more than $9,000 above the average for schools with similar students. (Almost a quarter of our rankings are tied to earnings.) Another measure of the value of the college experience is whether you leave campus with a network in place to help you navigate the hiring maze. Surveys by Jobvite, which makes résumé-screening software, find that personal referrals are recruiters’ best source of hires; 40% of workers say they got their best job from one.

How to spot value: Look for colleges that connect coursework to the real world, Cappelli suggests. “People learn best in the context of real problems,” he says. And you want a school that pushes a multidisciplinary approach, says Josh Jarrett, a former deputy director of postsecondary success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of Koru, a job-training program. Techies need to practice writing and speaking. Poets need to develop financial skills.

Also favor schools that help you go from the classroom to the office. Gallup found that students who got internships in college were 50% more likely than those who didn’t to thrive professionally later. Employers offer nearly two-thirds of interns full-time jobs, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found. So ask how the school helps students land paying internships.

Career services staffing makes up 5% of our rankings—1.5 workers per 1,000 students is average for our list—and this year we also looked at whether a college has a program to connect job-­seeking students with alumni, a good networking tool. Grads from the 116 schools on our list that don’t have such programs report salaries that are, on average, about $1,500 a year lower than those of schools that do.

TK_COL_TexasAM_lawn

Texas A&M has an unusually cohesive campus culture for big public university.

4. Face Time that Pays Off Now and Later

You’re not getting much bang for your buck if your kid fades into the back of a big lecture hall for most of college. “Mentorship from instructors is one of the most fundamental aspects of a good-value college,” says Busteed. In the largest-­ever survey of the impact of college experiences on graduates’ lives, Gallup last year polled 30,000 American adults. Those who were happiest and most professionally successful were twice as likely to say they had a professor who “cared about me as a person” or “made me excited about learning.”

MONEY’s data on faculty caseloads and accessibility, which account for 5% of our rankings, confirm that this is crucial. The public colleges on our list with the least accessible faculty have graduation rates of 48%, 15 percentage points below the rates for schools with student-to-faculty ratios of no more than 15 to 1.

What’s more, recent graduates of the 100 private schools on our list with the largest class sizes reported earning about $42,000 a year. That’s about $6,000 less than what fresh grads of the 100 private schools with the best student-to-faculty ratios earn.

The school in our rankings where undergrads get the most attention—the California Institute of Technology (No. 5), which has an average of three students per professor—also happens to produce among the highest earners in the country (more than $72,000 a year).

Customize your own Best Colleges rankings

You don’t have to be a young Einstein to find small classes. The average student at Molloy College on Long Island, N.Y. (No. 105), scored at about the 60th percentile on the SAT or ACT. Yet the school reports one faculty member for every 10 students, vs. an average of nearly 12 for private colleges on our list. Schools that don’t make our rankings average a ratio of 22 to 1. Molloy graduates report earning an above-average $55,000 within five years, vs. $44,500 for all schools on our list.

How to spot value: For starters, zero in on class size. Lanier Mason, who graduated from Molloy in May, says he chose the school over better-known rivals after he saw that almost all the ­classes he’d take would have fewer than 30 students. “You get a lot of face time with professors. And being in a smaller group, you wouldn’t be so afraid to ask questions,” he says. Now a freshly minted accounting major, he credits attention from professors as the key reason he and his identical twin (also a Molloy accounting major) are both interning at accounting firm EY this summer.

Ask students about the faculty culture, such as how often professors see students outside the classroom, says Busteed. ­Cindy Ann Kilgo, a University of Iowa education researcher, suggests looking for opportunities to help professors with research.

5. Innovative Teaching Methods

While graduation rates say a lot about quality, what happens before you leave campus matters too. At some colleges professors don’t seem to light the fire of learning. In a longitudinal study of 2,300 members of the class of 2009 at 24 colleges titled “Academically Adrift,” 36% of seniors showed no real improvement in skills like critical thinking. Those who learned the least were twice as likely to be unemployed and living with their parents as the best learners were.

A value college will be one that both prods and inspires your student to learn. The best way to do that, a growing body of research shows, is to replace traditional lectures with “active” or “collaborative” learning. Especially powerful are classes in which professors give short presentations, assign small groups in-class problems, and offer immediate feedback. Students in such classes showed 10% greater growth in critical-thinking skills than those in traditional lectures did, a study by Kilgo of over 6,000 students at 47 institutions found.

That kind of teaching is the reason MONEY’s top value college—­Stanford—is home to this year’s “professor of the year.” Sheri Sheppard was named the top professor at research universities by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for her transformation of her engineering class.

Lectures in which the professor “opens up the lid of the student’s brain and pours stuff in,” says Sheppard, “don’t lead to deep learning as effectively as integrating what they are studying with action and feedback.” Sophomores in her Introduction to Solid Mechanics class bring their bikes in on the day she teaches how loads are transferred and design the gearing for a bike-share program. “It is somewhat chaotic,” she says. But it reflects the kinds of tasks the students will face at a job.

How to spot value: Classrooms can tell you a lot, says Kilgo. A good sign: Instead of lecture halls, you see rooms with movable chairs and tables and whiteboards. And ask what incentives professors have to improve their teaching. Remember: A school that gets your student enthusiastic about a lifetime of learning is an investment that will pay dividends for decades to come.

See the full Best Colleges rankings

Update: This story was updated from the August 2015 print edition of Money magazine to reflect new information about one of the students profiled.

MONEY college savings

The Earnings on Your 529 College Savings Account Stink. Here’s Why That’s OK

dollar bill shoved in pile of books
Mudretsov Oleksandr—iStock

It's not all bad news.

The average investor in a college savings plan made just about 4% last year, even though the total U.S. stock market rose by almost 14%, a new study from Morningstar found.

But the lead author of the report, Leo Acheson, says that performance may not be quite as depressing as it sounds, for these six reasons:

  • It still beats tuition: Although 4% severely lags the Standard & Poor’s 500, it beat tuition inflation, which rose by 3.7% in 2014, according to the College Board.
  • Older students should earn less: A disproportionately large percentage of all 529 assets are funds that have been saved over time for students who are now at or nearing college age. Funds for those students should be—and typically are—invested very conservatively. Savings plans designed for current college students, for example, are typically almost entirely in safe bonds, which means they are earning less than 2% a year right now, Acheson notes.
  • Diversification setbacks should be short-term: Younger and more aggressive investors whose portfolios were globally diversified also earned less than the Standard & Poor’s 500 in 2014 because of trouble in international markets. Overall, emerging markets funds lost about 5% in 2014, for example. But, in theory, at least, globally diversified portfolios should do better over the long run.
  • Savers get federal tax benefits: When parents take the money out of 529 accounts to pay college bills, they don’t have to pay taxes on the gains, which boosts their effective return. Morningstar estimated that a family in the 25% to 35% tax bracket that saved $2,400 annually over the last five years would have netted $15,275 after taxes in a typical mutual fund, but $15,628 after taxes from the same investment in a sheltered 529 account.
  • Some also get state tax benefits: About half of Americans live in one of the 34 states that give deductions or credits on state tax returns for contributions to 529 plans. Those initial tax breaks reduce families’ state tax bills by an average of 8.7% of the contribution, according to Morningstar. (See if you live in a state with a 529 tax break.)
  • Fees are shrinking: One of the biggest criticisms of 529 plans has been the high fees that eat away at parents’ investment returns. Morningstar found that, for example, large value index funds offered in 529 plans charge expense ratios of .78% of assets, while the equivalent mutual fund outside of 529 plans charges just .56%. But 40 plans cut their fees in 2014, bringing the average gap between mutual funds and similar 529 plans down by more than half, Acheson found. In addition, the best plans, recommended by MONEY and by Morningstar, have fees as low as .08%.

The bottom line of all of these developments, Acheson says, is that for families in moderate to high tax brackets, and those who live in a state with a 529 tax break, “it makes sense to save for college in a 529 plan…especially one with low fees.”

MONEY College

The 20 Best Colleges You Can Still Get Into for the Fall

Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania
Mark Summerfield—Alamy Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania

Some great colleges are still accepting students who can apply quickly and aren't expecting lots of financial aid.

The Class of 2019 will descend on college campuses for the start of fall classes in just over three months. But for students who are uncertain of their plans, it’s not too late to apply to several quality schools.

More than 220 colleges have space for freshman or transfer students for the upcoming fall semester, according to the annual College Openings Update published today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The list is released following the May 1 national response deadline, when many institutions require deposits from students who have been offered acceptance. After tallying the numbers to see whether they met enrollment goals, colleges with space available can volunteer to be included on the counseling association’s list. It’s available online until June 30.

Many of the colleges willing to accept late applications are some of the best schools in the country.

Reed College, an elite private liberal arts college in Oregon, has an especially good track record of helping its graduates move into top graduate schools. (Reed isn’t included in MONEY’s rankings of the best value colleges because it declines to provide sufficient data.)

Here are 20 colleges MONEY ranks as excellent values that are still accepting applications.

College State Public or private? Money Best Colleges rank Graduation rate PayScale.com avg. early career earnings
University of Washington Bothell WA Public 37 64% $52,100
Holy Family University PA Private 68 62% $49,400
Oregon Institute of Technology OR Public 76 48% $57,000
Michigan Technological University MI Public 82 66% $59,200
Illinois Institute of Technology IL Private 92 68% $55,000
University of Arizona AZ Public 99 61% $48,400
Wheaton College MA Private 101 90% $42,400
New College of Florida FL Public 134 69% $39,800
DePauw University IN Private 134 78% $46,600
University of Northern Iowa IA Public 138 66% $40,600
Washington State University WA Public 138 67% $45,900
Loyola University Maryland MD Private 138 84% $51,000
William Jewell College MO Private 156 69% $45,700
Union College KY Private 166 83% $49,000
Saint Joseph’s University PA Private 169 79% $49,300
University of Toledo OH Public 173 46% $44,900
Ursuline College OH Private 173 52% $50,900
Rockhurst University MO Private 177 69% $49,000
The University of Tulsa OK Private 194 66% $55,000
Wagner College NY Private 208 66% $48,200

May 1 is an important date in terms of planning for colleges and families, enrollment experts say. But just five years ago, the response deadline was much more absolute than it is now, says Sarah Coen, senior vice president at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, an enrollment consulting firm.

The shift is partially due to increased pressure on college enrollment teams in regions, such as the Northeast, where the number of high school graduates is flat or declining, Coen says. Competition for students, especially at tuition-dependent private colleges, is fierce.

That’s good news for families who haven’t solidified college plans, because it means a lot of decent colleges still actively seeking students.

Private institutions make up about 65% of the list, but there are also some large, flagship state universities that are still accepting applications, such as the University of Arizona, University of Oregon, and University of Florida. There are colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia.

Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania has been on the list for six of the past seven years. The 1,400-student private university has about 10 to 20 spots left to fill and can offer both financial aid and housing, says vice president of enrollment Robert Gould.

Students thinking about applying to a college in late May or June should be sure they take all the traditional steps to vet a college, including campus visits if possible, Gould says. But because of the late time, families also should be prepared to move fast. What’s generally an 18-month timeline will need to be whittled down to a matter of weeks or even days. And getting required items, such as transcripts or letters of recommendation, can be more challenging over the summer months.

Because of those demands, Washington & Jefferson’s admissions director works individually with late-applying students. “You’re really condensing a lot, and any school that isn’t willing to give them that attention in a concentrated fashion probably isn’t going to be the best option for a family,” Gould says.

Most of the colleges on the list have spots in on-campus housing available, and all but four colleges said they have financial aid available.

Much of the list is made up of colleges with rolling admissions policies, meaning they accept students at any time until their class is filled. Likewise, they usually hand out financial aid until it’s gone, says Peter Van Buskirk, a former dean of admissions and author of Winning the College Admissions Game: Strategies for Parents & Students.

So even if a college says it has financial aid available, families may find that the package offered for next year is light on grants and scholarships and heavy on loans and work study, Van Buskirk says. “Those who arrive late to the game are most likely to get what’s left over,” he adds.

The federal deadline for the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) for aid for the fall semester isn’t until June 30, 2016, but at least 12 states have deadlines earlier this spring, according to Edvisors.com, which offers advice on college financial aid. Coen, the enrollment consultant, recommends families apply for FAFSA as soon as possible no matter what their state deadline is.

Keep in mind that this list of colleges still accepting students isn’t exhaustive. In addition to being voluntary, it’s comprised only of the 1,300 four-year colleges that are members of the counseling association. Community colleges—which accept students year-round—are largely excluded from the list.

And even if an institution isn’t included, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be receptive to late applicants. Coen says that if students are interested in a certain college, they should contact the admissions office regardless of whether the college is advertising open space.

College admissions is a buyers market right now, she says.“If you’re a student they want for whatever reason, they’re going to do what they can to get you.”

See all of Money’s Best Colleges

MONEY College

Many Colleges Offer Affirmative Action for the Rich and Powerful

School girls in uniforms
Hepp—Getty Images

Survey finds 25% of college admissions officers felt pressured to admit influential slackers.

Didn’t get into the college of your dreams? Maybe you weren’t qualified. Or maybe you weren’t connected, influential, or rich enough.

One hundred admissions officers at 400 top colleges and universities surveyed by Kaplan Test Prep—so fully 25% of respondents—said they have “felt pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet (the) school’s admissions requirements because of who that applicant was connected to.”

And 16% said their school gives an edge in admissions to applicants who are the children or siblings of alumni.

The Kaplan survey confirms what has long been one of the worst-kept secrets in the college admissions world: Many colleges give admissions advantages to applicants related to people college officials believe can help the institution in some way.

Many college officials have defended the practice, noting that these comparatively few exceptions help them raise big donations and recruit powerful backers to do things like fund scholarships for smart but needy students.

But this age-old policy of “affirmative action for the rich” has also been criticized as one factor contributing to the continuing gaps between college graduation rates for the rich and poor, as well as ongoing economic inequality. (Colleges’ chintzy financial aid policies also worsen inequality, charges one high school principal.)

Even colleges that say they are “need-blind” in admissions—in other words, don’t hold a student’s need for financial aid against them when making admission decisions—aren’t wealth-blind. Many wealthy and generous private colleges, such as Duke University, set aside at least a few letters of admission for “development admits”—underqualified children of families whom the school’s Development Office fundraisers hope will make large donations, journalist Dan Golden documented in his book The Price of Admission.

Many public universities also bend the rules in favor of influential slackers. Investigators found that between 2005 and 2009, the University of Illinois admitted an estimated 800 underqualified students who were connected to politically powerful families, for example.

And the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, pressured his admissions officers to admit as many as 73 underqualified students from influential families in the last six years, a state investigation recently found. Powers defended his actions, arguing that the number of exceptions affected less than one-tenth of 1% of the student body and “served the best interests of the institution.”

Seppy Basili, vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs at Kaplan Test Prep, cautions ordinary applicants against giving up because of this “thumb on the scale” for a small group of “development admits” and “legacies” (children of alumni). “The overwhelming majority of accepted college applicants are successful due to their own merits,” he says.

(Get tips on how to get your application to the top of the pile.)

In addition, Basili noted that such programs are under increasing scrutiny, thanks in part to the growing transparency of admissions practices. An increasing number of students are using an obscure provision in a federal law to gain access to their previously secret admissions files.

MONEY College

Yes, College Costs Are Eating Up More of Your Income

A year of public college costs low-income families 40% of their annual salary now, up from 29% in 2007.

It’s not your imagination, parents: Your kids’ college costs are indeed eating up a higher percentage of your income, a new federal report shows.

The report, which looked at the costs of college in the 2011-2012 academic year (the last year for which data is available) also documents a shocking increase in net costs for America’s lowest earners. That’s raising worries that the poor are increasingly being priced out of college, one of the main paths to a berth in the middle class.

The study found that families with incomes of up to about $31,000—who were the lowest-earning 25% of all American families with kids in college at that time—paid, on average, $12,300 to send a child to a public university, after grants and scholarships were subtracted. That was the equivalent of 40% of that group’s top annual income. In the fall of 2007, that same group would have paid only 29% of their income, a full 11 percentage points less.

For the families in the lower- to- middle- quarter—$69,000 was the midpoint for families with kids in college—net public college costs ate up 23% of the group’s top income, a 2 percentage point hike from the share of income needed by similar families in 2007.

Upper middle class families also saw their net costs rise. Families with incomes of about $111,000 earned more than 75% of all families in the study with children in college. The group with incomes between $69,000 and $111,000 paid about $20,400 (or 18% of top earners’ income) to send their kids to in-state public college, up 2 percentage points from 2007. Families in the top quarter, earning $111,000 a year and up, paid an average of $22,800 for their kids to attend in-state public college.

The data show that when it comes to funding college, “it pays to be rich,” says Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The findings, she says, are further evidence that claims the poor are getting more or better financial aid than the middle or upper classes “are simply not true.”

In fact, Cahalan says, the numbers show that financial aid has lagged so far behind rising living and tuition costs that many low-income students are being priced out of college. “Low-income students have to work too many hours to survive, and that is depressing their ability to compete and be successful,” she says. “Many of them end up leaving school because they can’t juggle work and school.”

A growing body of research shows that being priced out of college can have devastating lifetime effects. Workers without higher education are at a disadvantage in the job market and tend to get stuck in lower-paying jobs, according to several reports by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. A 2014 analysis of the job market, for example, found that just about 28% of all jobs in 1973 required at least an associate’s degree. By 2010, those requirements covered 42% of jobs. And by 2020, 47% of jobs are expected to require at least a two-year degree.

Income quartile
(annual income range)
1st
($0-$31,000)
2nd
($31-$69,000)
3rd
($69-$111,000)
% of top income needed to pay average net price (after grants are subtracted) for 2011-2 at a typical in-state public college 40% 23% 18%
% of top income needed to pay average net price (after grants subtracted) for 2011-2 at a typical private college 64% 34% 26%

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations

Read next: How to Find a College That Won’t Drown You in Debt

MONEY College

The 25 Public Colleges Where Students Graduate The Fastest

Final exercises, University of Virginia
Dan Addison—U.Va. Public Affairs At the University of Virginia, 86% of freshman graduation in four years.

The schools that will help you avoid the wasted time and added expense of spending a fifth year (or more) in the classroom.

One casualty of the ongoing budget problems and overcrowding at public colleges is speed. The average time public college students take to earn what used to be called a “four-year degree” is currently about 4.6 years.

In fact, only one third of public college students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And that means the average in-state public college student is paying for an additional semester of tuition, room, board, and books—which is currently running about $12,000, according to College Board data.

Many private college students need more than four years to graduate as well, but on average, fully 53% of private college students earn their bachelors’ degree on time, 20 percentage points higher than the public college rate. (For the private colleges that graduate students the fastest, see our list of the top 50.)

One major cause of students’ slower progress at public colleges is underfunding. At some colleges, such as some low-cost California State University campuses, students complain they can’t get into the majors or classes they need to complete their degrees. At several CSU campuses, such as San Jose State University, students have almost no chance to finish on time.

But students also slow themselves down, research shows. Generally, schools that accept students with less-than-perfect high school records—such as open access public colleges—tend to have low four-year graduation rates. Many struggling students have to take remedial classes before they can handle college-level work, which adds a semester or two to their degree.

And students who change majors late in their college career may have to take additional requirements, which can force them to spend an extra semester or two at school. (You can read more about the simple strategies to help you graduate on time here.

These 25 public colleges have the best records of graduating students on time. They are ranked by four-year graduation rates in the table below, which also lists Money’s best college values ranking and our estimate of the average cost of a degree for an in-state student, after college scholarships and grants are subtracted.

College state Money ranking % of freshmen who earn a bachelor’s in 4 years Estimated average net cost of a degree for the class of 2019
1. University of Virginia-Main Campus VA 16 86% $96,963
2. College of William and Mary VA 60 83% $99,106
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill NC 40 81% $86,637
4. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI 22 76% $97,359
5. University of California-Berkeley CA 13 72% $130,629
6. The College of New Jersey NJ 53 72% $131,357
7. St Mary’s College of Maryland MD 319 71% $123,480
8. University of California-Los Angeles CA 31 69% $130,477
9. SUNY at Binghamton NY 162 69% $102,165
10. University of California-Irvine CA 32 68% $126,546
11. University of California-Santa Barbara CA 95 68% $135,233
12. University of Connecticut CT 120 68% $105,084
13. University of Delaware DE 66 68% $101,911
14. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 76 68% $122,217
15. Miami University-Oxford OH 144 68% $128,987
16. University of Maryland-College Park MD 68 66% $102,069
17. SUNY College at Geneseo NY 359 66% $98,680
18. University of Mary Washington VA 107 66% $101,952
19. University of Florida FL 28 65% $89,572
20. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus PA 177 65% $147,090
21. James Madison University VA 53 65% $101,193
22. University of Vermont VT 300 65% $96,549
23. University of New Hampshire-Main Campus NH 261 64% $121,657
24. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus PA 319 64% $133,585
25. Citadel Military College of South Carolina SC 114 62% $98,671

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations

MONEY College

Why Harvard Will Win the NCAA Tournament

150319_FF_MarchMadnessHarvard
Hunter Martin—Getty Images Fans of the Harvard Crimson celebrate a win over the Yale Bulldogs in mid-March. Just imagine how excited they will be in Indianapolis in April if we're right.

Sure, the No. 13 seed in the West is a long shot. But our March Madness bracket favors colleges that produce alumni who win the financial tournament of life.

For the three weeks known as March Madness, college basketball fans focus on stats like field goal percentages or player efficiency. But we here at MONEY try to stay sane and pay attention to the numbers that matter over the long term.

So when we filled out this year’s NCAA men’s tournament bracket, we picked teams based on our Best Colleges rankings, which look at which schools do best in terms of affordability, quality of education, and graduating students into good-paying jobs. In other words, if we gathered these players and their classmates together again in, say, 25 or 50 years, who would likely be on the best financial footing?

This gave us an unorthodox final four of Harvard (6th in our value rankings, while a 13th seed in the tournament), Notre Dame (20th), Virginia (16th), and UCLA (31st), with Harvard besting Virginia in Indianapolis on April 6.

That Harvard is the overall winner is not exactly surprisingly: 97% of students graduate, there have been no recent defaulters on student loans, and the average recent graduate is earning about $55,000 a year these days, according to data from Payscale.com. But the elite private colleges don’t dominate in this bracket or in life. Two of our final four are public universities–Virginia and UCLA–which also have graduation rates above 90% and whose recent alumni typically earn about $50,000 a year.

Looking for this year’s Cinderella story? Manhattan (40th), the rightful winner of the play-in game against Hampton under our system, is predicted to oust undefeated Kentucky (389th) in the first round and go all the way to the Elite Eight. Another sixteen seed makes history in our bracket, as Lafayette College (28th) knocks off Villanova (114th) in the first round and hangs on until the Elite Eight as well.

There are some squeakers along the way. Schools within 20 places of each other in our ranking are roughly equivalent. But, strictly by our numbers, pricey, exclusive Lafayette edges out public and relatively affordable UC Irvine (32nd) in the Sweet 16 round. Lafayette Leopards tend to graduate into higher-paying jobs than do Irvine Anteaters (a difference of about $8,000 a year, according to Payscale), but they pay much more for their degrees. The average Leopard pays a total of $178,000 (after college scholarships are subtracted) for a bachelor’s degree, versus the Anteaters’ total bill of about $123,000.

Under our college value selection system, Brigham Young (9th) not only makes the roster of 64 teams but goes all the way to the Elite Eight before running up against unstoppable Harvard. Other notables in our bracket: Perennial basketball powerhouse Duke (32nd) barely makes it past Georgetown (37th) in the Sweet 16 before falling to UCLA. But high seeds like Gonzaga (177), Arizona (99), and Kansas (248) stumble early in the tournament.

To see how your college ranks in the competition of life, check out our full college rankings. Dig into our full NCAA bracket below (click the image to see a larger version).

MoneyBracket 3-18b

 

MONEY College

The 50 Best Private Colleges for Earning Your Degree On Time

150316_FF_FastestDegree
iStock

There aren't many "super seniors" at these private schools, where almost every student earns a bachelor's degree in just four years—and avoids the high cost of a longer stay.

Paying four years’ worth of college tuition is hard enough. But too many parents and students don’t realize that there’s a good chance they’ll have to pay for five, since 45% of full-time students need at least an extra year of school to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to Judith Scott-Clayton, an economist at Teachers College, Columbia University.

That common miscalculation can be “devastating” to a family’s finances, says Jim Briggs, a founder of Reducing College Costs, a private financial aid consulting firm. Since an extra year at a private college can easily cost more than $50,000 these days, “we are talking about a lot of money,” Briggs adds.

Before committing to a college, you should check the four-year graduation rate with the U.S. Department of Education. If the rate is low, ask the college and some students why that is, Briggs advises.

While students themselves cause many delays—by flunking required courses or changing majors late in their college careers—some schools do an especially good job of helping students get the courses they need to finish up in four years, saving parents that unpleasant surprise of a fifth year’s worth of bills, Briggs says.

At these 50 private colleges, you’ll have the best chance of graduating on time. At all of them, the average student graduates in 4 to 4.1 years, and more than 80% of the student body earns a bachelor’s degree within those four years. This list, ranked by four-year graduation rate, also includes Money’s best college values ranking and our estimate of how much the degree will cost if you get the typical amount of financial aid.

Your net cost will be lower if you take advantage of, say, federal education tax credits, or if you receive scholarships from private organizations or federal, state, or local government agencies. It will be higher if you don’t receive any financial aid.

College State Money ranking % of freshmen who earn a bachelor’s in 4 years Estimated average net cost of a degree for class of 2019
1) Pomona College CA 50 93% $167,662
2) Haverford College PA 122 91% $187,297
3) Yale University CT 15 90% $188,279
4) University of Notre Dame IN 20 90% $190,073
5) Williams College MA 14 90% $173,630
6) Carleton College MN 79 90% $183,529
7) Davidson College NC 72 90% $170,095
8) Vassar College NY 129 90% $159,658
9) Hamilton College NY 101 90% $187,252
10) Amherst College MA 17 89% $161,350
11) Boston College MA 122 89% $207,603
12) College of the Holy Cross MA 101 89% $191,814
13) Colby College ME 86 89% $195,668
14) Swarthmore College PA 32 89% $180,033
15) Georgetown University DC 37 88% $210,612
16) University of Chicago IL 101 88% $194,477
17) Bowdoin College ME 44 88% $185,213
18) Bates College ME 150 88% $199,275
19) Washington University in St Louis MO 62 88% $218,216
20) Princeton University NJ 4 88% $150,602
21) University of Pennsylvania PA 11 88% $207,659
22) Harvard University MA 6 87% $186,658
23) Tufts University MA 72 87% $207,047
24) Johns Hopkins University MD 107 87% $216,263
25) Duke University NC 32 87% $198,588
26) Dartmouth College NH 24 87% $194,752
27) Cornell University NY 24 87% $200,157
28) Colgate University NY 27 87% $192,119
29) Bucknell University PA 45 87% $204,082
30) Vanderbilt University TN 50 87% $165,615
31) Middlebury College VT 47 87% $208,897
32) Harvey Mudd College CA 7 86% $193,324
33) Wesleyan University CT 169 86% $199,874
34) Northwestern University IL 129 86% $206,162
35) Brandeis University MA 248 86% $197,555
36) Columbia University in the City of New York NY 22 86% $212,954
37) Kenyon College OH 94 86% $196,119
38) Villanova University PA 114 86% $202,283
39) Washington and Lee University VA 39 86% $153,859
40) Macalester College MN 214 85% $143,259
41) Lafayette College PA 28 85% $183,806
42) Claremont McKenna College CA 47 84% $202,642
43) Emory University GA 156 84% $217,059
44) Babson College MA 1 84% $204,884
45) Massachusetts Institute of Technology MA 3 84% $159,316
46) Wellesley College MA 95 84% $170,844
47) Franklin and Marshall College PA 248 84% $196,727
48) Brown University RI 19 84% $197,789
49) Occidental College CA 285 83% $191,630
50) St Olaf College MN 359 83% $139,836
MONEY College

The 10 Colleges With the Most Generous Financial Aid

Vanderbilt University
courtesy of Vanderbilt University At Vanderbilt University, the average merit award tops $20,000.

These top schools offer enough money to cover students' financial needs—and hand out award ample merit grants to high achievers too.

If you need a lot of financial help to pay for college, you’ll have much better odds at a schools that has a generous aid budget.

Unfortunately, these days that’s a small group. The average college provides only enough scholarships or grants to meet 70% of what low- and moderate-income students need to pay the bills, according to data provided by the colleges to Peterson’s.

In all, only 64 colleges in the country say they hand out enough aid to meet the full demonstrated financial need of every regularly admitted undergraduate, according to Peterson’s data. And many members of that elite group, including schools in the Ivy League, don’t provide a penny in merit scholarships. That means no scholarships to students who don’t qualify for need-based aid, no matter their academic achievements.

So Money crunched financial-aid data to find the 10 schools on our Best College Values list that not only provide 100% of the scholarship money they think you need, but also have large merit-aid budgets to help high-achieving, wealthier students.

It’s important, however, to be realistic about what’s “generous.” When colleges say they “meet full demonstrated need,” that doesn’t mean they give everybody full-tuition scholarships. Colleges first calculate how much they think your family can afford to pay (also known as the “expected family contribution”), using the financial information you provide on the FAFSA or the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid Profile.

On top of that number, many colleges add an expectation that students will take out loans and earn a few thousand dollars a year. The difference between the total expected student and parent contribution and the cost of the college is your “need.” That’s the amount that the most generous colleges will provide in need-based scholarships. Merit scholarships are awarded without regard to your family’s financial situation. (For tips on how to appeal for additional aid, click here.)

School Money rank Avg. est. total family education-related debt Est. average net price of a degree % of students who get merit awards Average merit grant
Vanderbilt University 49 $6,649 $160,791 10% $23,789
Rice University 20 $8,447 $149,851 15% $11,833
Duke University 32 $9,694 $192,804 12% $19,823
Davidson College 72 $10,842 $165,141 6% $22,246
Grinnell College 144 $11,325 $123,981 15% $15,093
University of Chicago 106 $12,986 $188,813 17% $10,205
Kenyon College 94 $13,313 $190,407 13% $13,040
University of Richmond 120 $14,317 $157,221 16% $23,300
Washington and Lee University 39 $15,270 $149,377 8% $35,060
Harvey Mudd College 7 $17,736 $187,694 20% $9,743

Notes: Average total estimated debt is federal student debt and parent Plus loan borrowing per graduating senior; net price for freshman starting in the fall of 2014.

Sources: Peterson’s, U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations.

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