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Baruch College of the City University of New York
Baruch College of the City University of New York is on our affordable list. Leslie Barbaro

The 40 Most Affordable Colleges for Low-Income Students

Nov 18, 2015

Nearly every college claims to be "affordable," but which ones really are?

A new benchmark indicates that comparatively few good colleges are fully affordable for the approximately 15 million families earning less than about $48,000. That group makes up more than one-third of all families with children under the age of 18.

The Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving higher education access and success, recently proposed that a college be called "affordable" if the cost of a bachelor's degree for a student is no more than the total of:

  • 10% of the family's discretionary income over 10 years
  • The amount a student can earn working 10 hours a week during the school year.

For families who don't have much discretionary income, that means a college is "affordable" only if it charges no more per year than a student can earn working part-time, which Lumina estimates at $3,625 a year.

MONEY tested this new definition of affordability against the net prices that colleges report to the government for different income groups.

Using this measure, we found only 40 "affordable" colleges for low-income students that met our standard for acceptable graduation rates (either significantly above what would be expected for their student population or at least the median for their type of school). All of the colleges on this list appear to provide enough scholarships so that a typical low-income student who works part-time should be able to graduate debt-free.

We also found dozens of top-notch colleges, including the University of Michigan, Yale, and Georgia Tech that were just a few hundred dollars above this threshold. This list highlights only the 40 most affordable ones.

To measure affordability, we looked only at the net prices colleges charged families earning less than $48,000, per year, in part because those numbers are the most reliable. We assumed that families earning less than $48,000 a year had no discretionary income, and thus could not contribute any savings to their child's college costs.

The U.S. Department of Education's financial aid formula does assume that many families earning more than about $30,000 can contribute to their children's college costs. But the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators says that for many families, that formula is unrealistic. The federal formula "no longer produces a reasonable estimate of what many families can be expected to contribute," says NASFAA senior policy analyst Karen McCarthy.

Instead, other analysts say that families earning less than $48,000, which is about twice the federal poverty line for a family of four, typically have no discretionary income. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimates the minimal family budget for a family of four "to secure an adequate but modest living standard" is at a least $49,000, but in high-cost cities such as Washington, D.C. can exceed $100,000. )

So here are the most affordable colleges for students from families earning $48,000 a year or less.

SchoolMoney rankStateAffordable for families earning up to $48,000 from:Acceptance rate %
Stanford University1CAAny state6%
Princeton University3NJAny state7%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology3MAAny state8%
Harvard University6MAAny state6%
Amherst College9MAAny state14%
University of Pennsylvania12PAAny state12%
University of Virginia-Main Campus17VAVA30%
Texas A&M University20TXTX69%
Duke University21NCAny state13%
Vanderbilt University24TNAny state13%
Columbia University in the City of New York28NYAny state7%
Brown University32RIAny state9%
University of Washington-Bothell Campus36WAWA76%
Pomona College38CAAny state14%
University of North Carolina School of the Arts38NCNC45%
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill46NCNC28%
Berea College52KYAny state34%
University of Washington-Seattle Campus56WAWA55%
Bowdoin College56MEAny state15%
CUNY Bernard M Baruch College71NYNY25%
California State University-Stanislaus82CACA72%
Colby College85MEAny state26%
Vassar College96NYAny state24%
California State University-Long Beach121CACA31%
CUNY College of Staten Island123NYNY100%
Wesleyan University134CTAny state21%
California State University-Fresno141CACA58%
Haverford College147PAAny state23%
Indiana University-Bloomington157ININ72%
University of Washington-Tacoma Campus184WAWA85%
North Carolina State University at Raleigh191NCNC50%
Texas A & M International University237TXTX48%
California State University-San Bernardino268CACA58%
Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College268LALA76%
CUNY Queens College284NYNY37%
California State University-Fullerton307CACA46%
North Carolina A & T State University380NCNC70%
CUNY Hunter College426NYNY30%
University of South Florida-Main Campus566FLFL45%
Elizabeth City State University616NCNC57%

Read next: MONEY's 50 Most Affordable Private Colleges

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