By Iris Stone
Michigan is home to a particularly diverse group of colleges and universities. There are large state schools that support long-running athletic rivalries (think Michigan State and the University of Michigan), plus small colleges, religious schools, and career prep/technology universities. Michigan also stands at an advantage to many other states, as its lower cost of living and real estate prices make it an overall more affordable choice than other regions of the U.S. In fact, in our list below, 70% of the colleges represented have a net price below $23,000 a year – a clear indication that an affordable education is within easy reach in this state.
Our goal was to identify not just the top Michigan colleges, but more specifically the ones that offer a lot of “bang for their buck.” As such, we developed a ranking system that pinpoints some of the most important factors you’ll need to consider when applying to college: student success (graduation rate), affordability (net price), selectivity (acceptance rate), and long-term value (return on investment).
Our Ranking Methodology:
Graduation Rate: This indicator refers to the percentage of students who complete their degree within 150% of normal time (six years for a typical four-year degree program). Schools that perform well in this area have a track record of keeping students engaged and successful for their entire time on campus. We weighted this category 30% of the total and retrieved the information from College Navigator.
Net Price: In order to make sure that cost was still a factor in the ranking, we also considered overall net price as an indicator. Taken from data on College Navigator, “net price” is an approximate value that refers to the average amount of money a student could expect to pay each year after taking into account tuition, room and board, living expenses, scholarship awards, and financial aid packages. We weighted this category 25% of the total.
Acceptance Rate: Academically challenging, popular universities tend to be more selective and thus have a lower acceptance rate. In order to pinpoint those colleges that boast rigorous academics and also receive a large number of applications, we considered acceptance rate – the percentage of students out of the total number of applicants who receive an acceptance letter. We retrieved this information from College Navigator and weighted it 30% of the total.
20-Year Net Return on Investment: Taken from information on the website PayScale, this statistic provides a picture of how much students can expect to make after they graduate from a particular college. More specifically, the figure is calculated by taking the average income an alumnus will make over his or her first 20 years after graduation and subtracting the amount paid in tuition. Schools with a high ROI tend to be better at preparing their students for the job market. We weighted this category only 15% because data was not available for all colleges considered.
After adding all the points, we gave each university a final score out of 200. The schools below have scores ranging from 81 to 174, and each has something different to offer in terms of its cost, quality, and reputation. No one college is perfect (which is why the scores vary so much) but this ranking offers you a premier selection of universities to help get you started on your search for an education in Michigan.
30. Lake Superior State University
Sault Saint Marie, MI
Although the Upper Peninsula can seem isolated from the rest of the state, it more than makes up for its remoteness with picturesque views and relaxed atmosphere. It also makes LSSU a great choice for outdoor adventurers, who can take advantage of the university’s hiking and camping trips – there’s even a national wildlife refuge nearby! Lake Superior’s location also offers the perfect environment for students who are looking to concentrate on their schoolwork; you’ll find few distractions while absorbing every detail of your classes in Fisheries and Wildlife Management, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Health, among other options.
Net Price: $10,356/yr
29. Wayne State University
Detroit may have suffered somewhat in reputation over the past few years, but certain spots in the city still thrive – including Wayne State University. A diamond in the rough when it comes to cheap colleges in Michigan, Wayne State is nationally recognized for many of its more than 370 academic programs. And with 28,000 students, 100 buildings, six extension centers, and over 200 acres of academic space, you’ll find that WSU has the resources to accommodate even your biggest aspirations. Wayne State is certainly one of the best colleges in Michigan when it comes to campus culture, too; it hosts students from 60 countries and has been rated the most diverse school in the state!
Net Price: $12,095/yr
28. Hope College
Way back in 1862, Hope College opened its doors to just 10 students who shared a desire for higher education. More than 150 years later, Hope has managed to expand significantly without losing that cozy, intimate feel. If you apply today, you could be one of 3,300 students joined together in spirit at this religious liberal arts college. The school perfectly blends historic architecture and traditional values with all the modern day conveniences you’d expect from a 21st century college – including the Pelletron particle accelerator located just a block away! And students who come to Hope don’t often regret their decision; in fact, the graduation rate is an impressive 80%.
Net Price: $25,770/yr
27. Adrian College
Sometimes referred to as “the little college that could,” Adrian College boasts somewhat of a Cinderella story. Despite its small stature and lack of name recognition nationally, Adrian is working hard to grow into a world-class university. In both 2009 and 2010, U.S. News & World Report named Adrian the #1 “up and coming” college in the entire country, and by 2012 it was counted among the nation’s best Midwest schools. The university also continues to beat its own records when it comes to enrollment – with 1,700 students now attending from year to year, you can expect the 62% acceptance rate to drop down, and soon!
Net Price: $21,962/yr
26. University of Detroit Mercy
The University of Detroit Mercy is another academic institution that serves as a bright spot in a struggling city. A traditional liberal arts college with the resources of a large research university, Detroit Mercy sits at the crossroads of two very different collegiate experiences. You’ll have more than 100 academic programs from which to choose, plus a plethora of extracurricular endeavors. You can join a co-op in your field and work with a local business, find an internship with a nearby corporation, or opt for a research project that will give you insight into the work of your favorite professors. All this talk of career preparation certainly pays off; this affordable Michigan college boasts a 20-year ROI of $217,000.
Net Price: $23,462/yr
25. Kalamazoo College
If you’re looking for a small but diverse liberal arts college, take a closer look at Kalamazoo. It accepts just 1,500 students at a time but is internationally oriented, with individuals from more than 30 countries present on campus at any given time. Kalamazoo College is dedicated to teaching and makes undergraduate success the most important responsibility of its entire faculty – and since 92% hold terminal degrees in their field, you can trust that you’re getting a reliable education. Kalamazoo is also big on experiential learning, and the statistics prove this point: 75% of students participate in an internship or externship, 50% of seniors complete their final projects “in the field,” and 80% of students study abroad at some point during their academic career.
Net Price: $26,064/yr
24. Aquinas College
Grand Rapids, MI
One of the benefits of attending a religious college is their unwavering commitment to knowledge and wisdom in their purist form. Aquinas College fits this description exactly, bringing students an education that emphasizes leadership, community service, a lifelong love of learning, and an eternal pursuit of the “common good.” Located on the edge of Grand Rapids, Aquinas serves as a safe haven from which students can venture out into Michigan’s second biggest city. Concerts, cultural events, and festivals will quickly fill up your calendar, giving you plenty of ways to relax on the weekends – after finishing your homework, of course!
Net Price: $18,358/yr
23. Grand Valley State University
Grand Valley State University has a student body of 25,000 and owns 1,300 acres in total, making it a true Goliath among American colleges. Not only is it the fifth largest school in Michigan, but it is also one of the 100 biggest schools in the nation. And if you’re not quite convinced of GVSU’s stature, consider a few other figures: 200 areas of study, more than 400 student organizations, and over 60 school-sponsored study abroad trips are within easy reach of all GVSU students. And if all this isn’t enough, maybe you’ll be enticed by all the university’s campus events. From the Laker Kickoff Party at the beginning of every year to the annual “Battle of the Valleys” in conjunction with Saginaw Valley State, GVSU is a top Michigan college for anyone who seeks constant stimulation.
Net Price: $16,370/yr
22. Kettering University
Long seen as removed from the rest of Flint, today Kettering University is at the heart of the Vehicle City’s resurgence. With cooperation from General Motors and other local foundations, Kettering is investing in new automotive research facilities and recently helped renovate Atwood Stadium in Flint’s historic Carriage Town neighborhood. Notable alums include Mary Barra, one of the most successful women in business and the first-ever woman CEO of General Motors. Don’t be daunted by the price tag: Kettering offers the best 20-year ROI of any school in Michigan with an average return of $752,900.
Net Price: $32,336/yr
21. Marygrove College
Marygrove College is another standout university for its ability to combine small college life with big world experiences. Students range from 18 to 40 years of age and hail from right down the street and all the way across the world. Marygrove accepts fewer than half of applicants, so make sure you buckle down if you want to attend. And those who do attend have plenty to keep them occupied; you can join the Eclectic Urban Dance Team, strengthen your spiritual connections through Campus Ministry, or cheer on your fellow Mustangs in one of 10+ sports.
Net Price: $13,077/yr
20. Western Michigan University
Western Michigan University is hands-down one of the top colleges in Michigan. Why? Well first of all, there’s a reason more than 24,000 students choose WMU as their guide through collegiate life. With a low net price and a 20-year ROI of $294,000, Western Michigan is an investment you can count on. And despite its high enrollment, WMU fosters an inclusive, intimate learning environment that will make you feel like you’re on a campus a fraction of the size. As far as academics are concerned, this university has a stellar reputation in a number of areas, including Aviation Flight Science, Geology, Jazz Studies, Psychology, Business, Occupational Therapy, and a hodgepodge of other fields that span the arts and sciences.
Net Price: $15,464/yr
19. College for Creative Studies
Who ever said you can’t make money in a creative field? Get ready to prove the “haters” wrong if you attend the College for Creative Studies, a top-ranked LinkedIn university and one of the “best in the Midwest” based on Alumni success. CCS is also the #3 design school in the nation and an obvious choice for anyone interested in art, graphic design, illustration, product/fashion design, or related fields in new media. Don’t expect to just walk in the door – the acceptance rate here is a respectable 46% – and get ready to work hard once you take your seat in class. Campus (and off-campus) life mirrors students’ passions, and you’ll find plenty of nearby studios, entertainment venues, and urban attractions in Detroit to keep your creative mind constantly engaged.
Net Price: $34,419/yr
18. Spring Arbor University
Spring Arbor, MI
For some students, getting a true “Christian experience” at college is a must-have. Enter Spring Arbor University, one of the best universities in Michigan for religious scholars. SAU’s roots are simple but inspiring; in 1873 it opened its doors with the singular mission to offer an education grounded in the Christian faith. Over the past nearly 150 years, Spring Arbor has grown into a distinguished school that welcomes applicants from a wide range of backgrounds, and the academic programs have expanded to include secular topics in Accounting, Broadcasting, Economics, Global Studies, and nearly 70 others! Of course, there are still plenty of options for those who seek a career with the church, and you can study Biblical Languages, Camping Ministry, Global Ministry, or Theological Studies to your heart’s content.
Net Price: $17,753/yr
17. Grace Bible College
Grace Bible College is another great choice if you see Christianity as a central tenant of your education – and your every day life. GBC also touts the added benefit of being one of the great, cheap Michigan colleges. With an appealing price tag and an impressive mission – “to graduate Godly individuals prepared to serve Christ in Church and Society” – GBC may be the #1 option for Christian scholars on a budget. Christian ministries are a very popular activity on campus, as many students see them as a way to enhance their learning outside the classroom. GBC also emphasizes diversity and wants you to enjoy a cross-cultural experience, so service-oriented mission trips to Central and South America and Africa are within easy reach.
Net Price: $13,324/yr
16. Ferris State University
Big Rapids, MI
Ferris State University sits appropriately near the middle of our ranking of the best Michigan colleges, as it offers a true middle-of-the-road solution for those who don’t want to compromise quality for cost. You’ll pay one of the lowest tuition rates around while still earning a serious return on investment – the small upfront cost you commit today could turn into almost $300k in earnings over the next 20 years! Part of the reason for FSU’s alumni success is its strong emphasis on career prep. Programs like Industrial Technology and Management, Allied Health Services, Automotive Management, and Nursing will set you up as a high-demand worker in the job market.
Net Price: $12,602/yr
15. Kuyper College
Grand Rapids, MI
Located in suburban Grand Rapids, Kuyper is a small Christian school with a focus on preparing students for ministry by developing character and capability. Kuyper is one of the most affordable colleges in Michigan—and significantly cheaper than other comparable religious schools. All students are required to take Bible & Theology classes and will, in fact, graduate with at least a Bible & Theology minor. And students looking to get off campus will enjoy plenty of options; the school is just around the corner from Robinette’s, a great place for donuts and cider—and down the road students will find Knapp’s Corner, a quickly growing entertainment district on Grand Rapid’s northeast side with coffee shops, restaurants, shopping, and an IMAX theatre.
Net Price: $18,990/yr
14. Eastern Michigan University
With easy access to Ann Arbor and Detroit, Eastern Michigan University is ideally located if you want to be close to the action. You don’t even have to leave campus, either. The school’s Convocation Center has welcomed big name performers such as Jay-Z, Kevin Hart, and Jason Mraz to campus in recent years. Eastern’s College of Education, the oldest department on campus, was founded in 1849 and is home to the largest department of special education in the United States. And recent construction on campus led to the opening of a new science complex built in 2011, the same year that Pray-Harold, home to the College of Arts and Sciences, was enhanced with its own set of renovations. With an average 20-year ROI of $213,000, Eastern Michigan is a standout among cheap Michigan colleges.
Net Price: $13,040/yr
13. Lawrence Technological University
Lawrence Technological University is one of the best universities in Michigan. Don’t take our word for it, though. Try these numbers on for size: 90% of students find a job in their field within six months of graduation. LTU also ranks in the top 10% nationally for return on investment, with a 20-yr ROI of $548,000. Just north of Detroit, LTU connects students with Fortune 500 companies like Ford, which hosts an annual networking event on campus where company reps bring a full range of vehicles on campus and talk to students. Many event participants go on to intern or even work at Ford. Currently, LTU is investing $55 million in a new research center as well as constructing the Detroit Center for Design in Midtown, one of the hippest neighborhoods in the Midwest.
Net Price: $25,824/yr
12. Northern Michigan University
How many schools do you know of where you get to cheer on your own Nordic skiing team? Crossing the bridge to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may mean colder weather and lots of snow, but it doesn’t mean leaving technology behind. Northern Michigan University in Marquette was America’s first university to operate its own 4G network. The school’s investment in this wireless network—now spanning more than 40 square miles—even prompted a visit from President Obama to the school’s campus in 2011. NMU, one of the best colleges in Michigan, is home to two art galleries, two radio stations, and a public access TV station. Plus, with a 72% acceptance rate, the school’s 9,000-person student body is largely self-selected.
Net Price: $12,258/yr
11. Calvin College
Grand Rapids, MI
Calvin College is the flagship school for the Christian Reformed Church, a small protestant denomination largely centered on West Michigan’s sizable Dutch immigrant population. Thus, while you don’t need to be Christian Reformed in order to attend, you will certainly learn a lot about John Calvin and Reformed theology in your time here. Professors are knowledgeable, passionate on their areas of expertise, and more often than not, eager to engage with students. Calvin’s faculty is frequently recognized alongside professors from much larger schools in the state, helping Calvin stand tall as one of the top colleges in Michigan. Even though surrounding neighborhoods are largely suburban, a bus line can connect you with eclectic neighborhoods nearby and the newly thriving downtown.
Net Price: $25,994/yr
10. Northwood University
Northwood University’s exclusive focus is on business. As such, the stated mission behind the university is “to develop the future leaders of a global, free-enterprise society.” Their alumni are certainly living up to this as some notable graduates include Amway heir Dick DeVos and Representative Candice Miller, the only woman to hold a committee chair position in the current session of the U.S. House of Representatives. While the school’s main campus is in Midland, you can find additional locations throughout the Lower Peninsula. Business-minded students will also be interested to know that the school’s 20-year ROI is a respectable $291,300.
Net Price: $19,870/yr
9. Albion College
Chartered in 1835, Albion College is the third oldest continually running college in Michigan. Albion, one of the best Michigan colleges around, has maintained its small size over the years. Today, not many more than 1,000 students attend Albion every year, resulting in an intimate 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio. When you’re not in class, enjoy the 340-acre Held Equestrian Center or more than five miles of trails on the school’s nature preserve. In town, you can enjoy authentic Mexican food at local favorite La Casa Mexicana or, if you want to get away, a convenient Amtrak line connects you with Chicago and Detroit. While historically affiliated with the Methodist Church, today the school embraces students from diverse religious backgrounds.
Net Price: $24,906/yr
8. Rochester College
Rochester Hills, MI
Rochester College moved to become a more inclusive, more diverse institution in 1997 when the name changed from Michigan Christian College. Today, the school remains firmly committed to educating students within a “values-based” Christian tradition. Rochester, like Kuyper, is notable for its affordability as a private, religious institution. Not only is Rochester one of the most affordable Michigan colleges around, it’s one of the most dynamic. An active theatre company puts on plays and musicals throughout the academic year and the college plays host to conferences featuring nationally known speakers. Admission is competitive, with only 41% of applicants getting accepted.
Net Price: $15,807/yr
7. Andrews University
Berrien Springs, MI
Andrews University may be Southwest Michigan’s best-kept secret. In addition to being one of the top universities in Michigan, Andrews is the only Adventist university to be ranked nationally by U.S. News & World Report. The 3,400 students at Andrews represent nearly 100 countries from around the world, and the school’s diversity is a point of pride. Events such as the International Food Fair and Culture Nights celebrate the diversity to be found on this tiny campus. With a 37% acceptance rate, admission is highly competitive. Opportunities abound for students who want to explore a career in missions—ministry fairs, service opportunities in the local community, and even the chance to spend a year abroad as a student missionary.
Net Price: $23,620/yr
6. Central Michigan University
Mt. Pleasant, MI
You can forget the bitter rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State—the Central Michigan University Chippewas are the pride of Mid-Michigan – and with good reason. CMU stands out from the crowd with its unique academic programs, including Michigan’s only undergrad meteorology program and the state’s only event management major. The school’s Biological Station on Beaver Island, the largest landmass in majestic Lake Michigan, gives students a rare look at the Great Lakes’ ecosystem. Students enjoy $361 million in financial aid and scholarship every year, and graduates can count on a respectable $208,800 ROI over 20 years.
Net Price: $13,580/yr
5. Madonna University
You may know that Madonna hails from Metro Detroit—but do you know Detroit’s other Madonna? We’re talking about Madonna University, of course. Just minutes outside the city in the affluent suburb of Livonia, Madonna University is a Franciscan Catholic university with about 3,200 undergrad students. The school has an admirable 12:1 student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 100 degrees. Recent growth gives Madonna a competitive edge among top Michigan colleges. In conjunction with the School of Business, Madonna’s College of Nursing is offering Population Health Care Management as well as Health Care Informatics and Quality Systems Management. Other programs include Addiction Studies, e-Commerce, Writing, and Professional and Technical Writing.
Net Price: $13,738/yr
4. Oakland University
After years of decline, Michigan’s manufacturing industry is on the rebound as the automotive industry adds thousands of new high-tech jobs every year. Oakland University, a gem among cheap colleges in Michigan, is at the heart of that growth. Oakland’s Automotive Tribology Center is the only such research center anywhere in America housed in an academic institution. Associated research helps advance the reliability, mobility and efficiency of automobile components. But if the automotive industry isn’t your thing, not to worry. With more than 135 undergraduate programs to choose from, there’s sure to be something of interest to you. OU welcomes students from nearly every state in the Union—and for good reason; the average 20-year ROI is $367,500.
Net Price: $13,043/yr
3. Michigan Technological University
In the heart of the Upper Peninsula’s snowbelt, Houghton has the distinction of being one of the coldest, snowiest college towns in the United States. Even if you don’t like the snow, you may find reason to give Michigan Technological University some consideration when you find out the average ROI for graduates is an astounding $661,700. One upside of attending school in Michigan’s remote U.P. is that your classmates aren’t likely to disappear on the weekend for a visit home. And with more than 240 student organizations, there is always something to do. NMU is also home to one of the best college hockey teams in the country.
Net Price: $15,629/yr
2. Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI
Want to be part of a proud tradition? There is none prouder than the Spartan tradition at Michigan State University—the first land-grant school in the country. Long thought of as “little brother” to the University of Michigan, MSU has truly come into its own as a nationally recognized center for research and academic excellence—particularly when it comes to its agricultural programs. And yet there’s more to MSU than its ag programs. For example, Michigan State’s elementary and secondary education program is ranked #1 in the country. And if you’re after a college town experience, there’s none livelier than East Lansing—particularly during tailgate season. Michigan State is an excellent investment with an average 20-yr ROI of $409,400.
Net Price: $14,791/yr
1. University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
Many dream about being a Wolverine; few get the honor. The University of Michigan, founded in 1817, is the state’s oldest school—and its most iconic, nationally renowned for its academics and legendary sports teams. If you apply, don’t bank on getting accepted; only 32% of applicants make it in. For those who do attend, Michigan has a 91% graduation rate—and on top of that an impressive 20-year ROI of $541,500. With the buzz of a big city packed into a college town, Ann Arbor offers students a one-of-a-kind undergrad experience. Restaurants of all stripes, concerts, events like the annual folk festival, an impressive farmers’ market and a diverse population make Ann Arbor a lively and fun town for students who attend this top Michigan college.
Net Price: $15,850/yr
About the Author:
Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher. She now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Her work has included articles related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and careers.