So with college costing more than ever, and taking longer than ever to complete, how can you get the best value out of your college experience? The cost of college is high and rising. In just the last 30 years, the cost of a four-year degree, from any institution, public or private, has increased from $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation) to $104,480.
What are the most affordable colleges in the U.S.? And is it possible to earn a four-year degree that is both affordable and excellent? Is there such a thing as a good “cheap” school?
These are the questions we asked before putting together the list below. Of course, we don’t like to use the phrase “cheapest colleges and universities” because we don’t want you to think of these as bargain-bin schools. In reality, we focused on colleges and universities that provide educational excellence at a reasonable cost. Think of this as a list of schools that give you the best return on your investment.
But we know that the final price tag is on your mind when you’re shopping for colleges. The cost of college is high and rising. In just the last 30 years, the cost of a four-year degree, from any institution, public or private, has increased from $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation) to $104,480. And of course, that assumes you finish college in just four years, which happened for just 52.8% of private university students and 33.3% of public school students. So with college costing more than ever, and taking longer than ever to complete, how can you get the best value out of your college experience?
The Most Affordable Colleges and Universities
Start with a look at what we consider to be the “Best Value Colleges and Universities” – schools that charged under $20,000 per year in tuition and fees while rating at the top of our Influence Ranking. Technically, we consider schools “affordable” if tuition and fees are below the national average of $16,000 for public universities. Still, this sample of the best value colleges shows that many colleges and universities with excellent academic reputations can be reasonably priced.
These schools are ranked by academic excellence and all cost less than $20,000 a year.
For another way of looking at gettng the best return on your investment, check out our groundbreaking new ranking of the schools with the Best Academic Stewardship. Here, we ask how effectively schools manage their financial and human resources to gain the influence that makes them academically excellent. Schools that are exemplary in Academic Stewardship are doing everything in their power to help students and faculty achieve their full potential. In other words, these schools are affordable considering what you’re getting in exchange.
The Most Affordable Colleges and Universities By State
One of the best ways to save money on your college investment without sacrificing quality is to attend a school in your home state, or in your region. Public and state schools generally offer lower tuition rates for in-state applicants, while attending a private school in-state can provide you with savings on travel and housing. That’s why we’ve cataloged the most affordable colleges and universities by state.
A large number of fully accredited colleges and universities offer excellent online degrees at the associate, bachelor’s, and grad levels. This can be a great way to save money on your higher education by reducing costs such as housing, transportation, and certain campus fees:
Community College is another excellent way to save money on the way to a degree. In most cases, your community college will offer a two-year degree at a more affordable rate than the rate offered by the average four-year public college or university. This is a great way to reduce your student loan debt burden even if you plan to ultimately transfer into a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
How much should you spend on your college education? The answer is different for everybody. The best way to calculate the right budget for your degree is to gain a better understanding of the higher education economy. Take a look at our exhaustive, fact-based resources on everything from admission rates and tuition costs to scholarships and financial aid.
For deeper insights into the admissions process, the factors causing high tuition rates, and the best strategies for lowering the cost of your college education, check out our interviews with top experts in the field.
Frequently Asked Questions About College Affordability
College is expensive because of overlapping factors like the steady increase in the number of college applicants over the last several decades, significant cuts in public funding for state colleges, and increased costs for amenities, infrastructure, and administration. These factors have all contributed to a decades-long spike in the cost of college. Back to Top
Four years in college costs, on average, between $40,000 and $200,000. In 2020, the average yearly cost of tuition and fees for in-state public colleges was just over $10,000 while the average cost of tuition for a year in private school was $36,801. But costs can go up significantly from there, with more than 120 ranked private colleges charging an annual tuition and fees of at least $50,000. And this is only the sticker price. The net price includes an array of additional expenses, which would likely provide a more accurate picture of what you’ll spend on 4 years in college. Back to Top
The difference between the sticker price and net price of college is that the stricker price does not factor in all incidental costs (housing, fees, books, etc.) or credits (financial aid, scholarships, need-based grants, etc.) whereas the net price more accurately reflects what you’ll be paying for college. The “sticker price” does not account for an array of necessary incidentals including housing, college fees, text books, meal plans, and general living expenses. You’ll need to add these expenses to the sticker price to determine your net price. The good news is, you can also factor in your financial aid and any grants or scholarships you’ve been awarded, which will bring your net price down. For more on the difference between the sticker price and the net price, visit our general Guide to Paying for College Back to Top
The cost of college can vary widely depending on what you’re looking for in your higher education. A range of variables will determine your cost including whether you attend a public or private school, whether you take online or in-person classes, and whether or not you attend a school in-state or out-of-state. These factors will help to determine your base sticker price. After that, you’ll need to factor in major expenses including college fees and housing expenses. According to the Century Foundation, college housing prices “increased by just under 80 percent, inflation-adjusted” between 1975 and 2015. After that, you’ll need to factor in your financial aid–which may or may not be subsidized–as well as any need-based grants or scholarships. For more on how to make these calculations, check out How Much Should College Cost? Back to Top
If college is too expensive, consider a variety of more affordable options including community college and online education. The rankings and resources included here place an emphasis on affordability. But there are ways to cut your costs even further. For instance, many students will choose to begin their higher education in a community college. Earning your associate degree at one of these two-year institutions can save you a lot of money on tuition before you ultimately transfer into a four-year degree program. Most associate degree programs also offer online options, which means you can save on housing costs by completing your courses from your family’s home. Once you’ve completed your program, you’ll not only have the credentials to transfer into a four-year program, but you may also qualify for entry-level work in your field, which is a great way to gain experience and fund your education. For an affordable way to get started, check out the 50 Best Community Colleges. Back to Top
You can make college more affordable by starting at a community college or by looking for a public, in-state four-year school. Public and state universities are frequently more affordable than private colleges. If you’re receptive to a big-school experience, you can save a lot of money up front. You can save even more if you choose to go to a public college near home, because most state schools offer deep tuition discounts for in-state residents. You may also be able to offset some expenses by attending college, or at least completing some courses, online. While tuition for online college is generally in line with tuition for the traditional college experience, you may be able to save on college fees, housing, and transportation. Back to Top
You can cut your college costs by applying for financial aid, getting scholarships, and attending a public university in your state. And in some cases, the most expensive schools, including Ivy League colleges, are likely to be the most generous when it comes to both need-based grants and merit scholarships. Financial aid and scholarships are both important resources as you look for ways to cut your costs. There are also ways to save on additional expenses. Text books, for instance, can be quite expensive. Try shopping for used books online instead of going straight to your campus bookstore for the newest copy. Back to Top
Whether it’s worth going to an expensive college or not will depend on your financial situation, your professional goals and the kind of experience you want out of your university. Before you commit to an elite university or a school with fancy amenities, remember that you will likely be paying loans for these experiences well after graduation. Make sure you really need a degree from that expensive college to take the next step in your career. For some, only an elite college will do. This experience may place you in contact with the instructors, classmates, and credentials you need to pursue your selected career. But if you can achieve your personal, educational, and career goals at a well-regarded but affordable public university, it may be worth saving the money. Still not sure which is right for you? Read on for help answering the question, Should I go to an elite college? Back to Top