By Iris Stone
As one of the 13 original colonies, Virginia is home to some of the oldest universities in the entire country – and many of them maintain close ties with their historic roots. From Emory & Henry College, which draws its commitment to civic engagement from the eponymous Patrick Henry (the first governor of Virginia), to the College of William & Mary, which sits just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg, universities in this state wear their age well. Virginia is also home to some of the biggest names in public education, including top-rated UVA, the engineering hub Virginia Tech, and George Mason University – an up-and-coming state school with a growing reputation (and easy access to D.C.).
But the main shared feature amongst all the schools listed below is their value; in other words, their ability to combine cost with quality in a way that will make you think they have a tree of money hidden somewhere on campus. To identify these “best value” colleges, we identified a few primary metrics. By simultaneously judging a school on its affordability an selectivity as well as both student and alumni success, we aimed to bring you the best of both worlds.
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 71 to 185, 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 Virginia.
30. Roanoke College
School should be about doing what you love – at least that’s what Roanoke College believes. Students come to Salem to meet passionate peers who truly care about academics and want to make the world a better place. Of course, Roanoke’s incredible campus – rated one of the most beautiful in the country by Princeton Review – is a pretty good reason, too! A respectable admissions rate of 69% and a climbing graduation rate position Roanoke as a serious contender amongst top Virginia colleges, and other publications agree. U.S. News has even identified the school as an “up-and-comer” in the world of liberal arts colleges, and it’s easy to see why.
Net Price: $29,077/yr
29. Virginia State University
Fall in love with college at Virginia State University, a 236-acre campus that overlooks the sparkling Appomattox River and the bustling city of Petersburg. The first of multiple historically black universities represented on this list, VSU is a member of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and a long-time favorite for African American students. One of just two land-grant institutions in Virginia, VSU proudly sports a 416-acre research facility. A quick tour around this cheap college in Virginia will reveal plenty of other modern facilities, including 17 academic buildings and 16 residence halls. You’ll also notice plenty of busy students as they run back and forth between classes and fun student activities, such as marching band, Greek life, dance groups, Taekwondo, and more.
Net Price: $15,042/yr
28. Lynchburg College
Nestled safely in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lynchburg College offers unbeatable scenery on a quiet campus. The 250-acre campus is surrounded by rivers, lakes, and hiking trails, and LC students are understandably adventurous. Lynchburg also features unique sustainability programs, including the 420-acre Clayton Nature Study Center. That being said, Washington, D.C. and Richmond are both within easy driving distance, which means you can reap all the benefits of city life – including internships and world-class entertainment – without all the expense and chaos. But perhaps LC’s most defining feature is its unique spirit, characterized by friendliness, helpfulness, and a strong sense of family.
Net Price: $23,576/yr
27. Regent University
Virginia Beach, VA
In the Venn Diagram of spiritual education and affordable admission, Regent University sits squarely in the middle. One of the best universities in Virginia for religious students on a budget, Regent supports a “unique campus culture” that places rigorous academics and faith-based study on the same pedestal. The school’s 6,000 or so students include both undergraduate and graduate-level learners majoring in everything from Accounting to Youth Ministry. Regent also houses a School of Law and numerous online programs, while special initiatives for international students and veterans makes this university about as inclusive as they come.
Net Price: $16,880/yr
26. Randolph Macon College
Many students struggle to decide whether to attend a large research university or a small liberal arts college. The former often provides more targeted career prep, while the latter provides a more flexible path for broad-minded students. Enter Randolph Macon College, the middle-of-the-road solution for students who want it all. RMC offers a distinguished liberal arts curriculum in conjunction with an innovative career-training program called “The Edge.” Advisors from The Edge Career Center will work with you all four years to develop a job plan that is seamlessly integrated into your academic studies. Students who adhere this proven program enjoy plenty of success – or “an edge” as RMC says – in the job market.
Net Price: $26,056/yr
25. Emory & Henry College
Emory & Henry: a title full of history. Named for Patrick Henry, Virginia’s first governor, and Bishop John Emory, a leader in the Methodist Church, E&H College supports a distinct dual mission. The curriculum places equal emphasis on religion and civic engagement, and it encourages students to develop themselves fully – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. EHC also attracts nature lovers and outdoor adventurers, due in no small part to its breathtaking location in rural Southwest Virginia. You might even consider Semester-A-Trail, an experiential learning course in which you will spend a semester hiking the Appalachian Trail – and you’ll earn 12 credits in the process!
Net Price: $18,661/yr
24. Bethel College
Forget separation of church and school – Bethel College and Bethel Church operate in unison to provide a one-of-a-kind education for religious students. Closely modeled on the five-fold ministry detailed in the Bible, Bethel College channels all its resources into educating students for theological careers. Make sure you are confident in your career choice if you pick this cheap college in Virginia, as switching majors isn’t an option. The only bachelor’s program available is in Church Ministries, although you will have the flexibility to pick a concentration in Missions, Biblical Studies, Worship and Worshiping Arts, or Ministerial Leadership.
Net Price: $12,202/yr
23. Virginia Union University
Founded as a college for freed slaves and incorporated in the merging of four different institutions, Virginia Union University’s history is anything but average. One of the original colleges, Richmond Theological Seminary, even held classes in a former holding cell for runaways! More than 150 years later, VUU continues to uphold its original, bold commitment to a comprehensive education for all. Between the Sydney Lewis School of Business; the Evelyn R. Syphax School of Education, Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies; the School of Humanities and Social Sciences; and the School of Mathematics, Science & Technology, VUU unquestionably upholds this mission – and then some! Although with a slim 24% acceptance rate, this affordable Virginia college is growing too popular to admit everyone – so study hard!
Net Price: $19,164/yr
22. Hampden-Sydney College
As one of the only liberal arts schools in the country just for men, Hampden-Sydney easily distinguishes itself from the crowd of other colleges in the region. While it’s certainly not for everyone, HSC holds a unique appeal for young male learners who are serious about their studies. Alongside academics, Hampden-Sydney prioritizes strong moral and ethical character development. Students work to become “thoughtful, honorable men” who “behave as gentlemen” make a mission out of serving others. Supporting this mission are initiatives like The Rhetoric Program, which ensures that all students know how to write and speak effectively, and the Union Philanthropic Society, which hosts weekly formal debates (and a coat and tie dress code!).
Net Price: $29,533/yr
21. Virginia Commonwealth University
It’s difficult to capture the essence of a city like Richmond in one paragraph. With an eclectic nightlife and a pervasive artistic vibe, Richmond – and VCU by extension – is known for attracting a creative crowd. In fact, Virginia Commonwealth University boasts the #1 public arts graduate program in the country, while professors and alumni alike have earned prestigious Guggenheim Fellowships. VCU is also home to the state’s best medical hospital and recently earned the distinction of housing the “most innovative business students.” But no matter what your area of interest, VCU will land you solidly on the ladder to success; its 20-year net ROI breaks the $200,000 ceiling.
Net Price: $19,335/yr
20. Eastern Mennonite University
In today’s increasingly competitive job market, college seems to have become more about securing a credential – and a comfortable income – than about learning. Eastern Mennonite University has resisted this shift, instead focusing on “academics for the common good.” Undergraduates get to know their professors by name and can enjoy one-on-one conversations with their favorite mentors over lunch or coffee. Cultural immersion is also an important part of an EMU education; whether you opt for an internship in D.C. or a summer excursion overseas, this school is one of the best Virginia colleges for experiential learning.
Net Price: $20,559/yr
19. Hollins University
Hollins University may not have the name recognition of a school like Harvard, but the unique experience it offers deserves a seriously close look. Forget rote memorization or training just to pass a test – students at Hollins are genuinely curious, passionate, and eager to learn. Faculty members share a similar commitment to the university, and nearly 100% are employed full time! In keeping with its off-the-beaten-path approach to education, Hollins has invented “Tinker Day.” Every year, the administration cancels class one random day so that students and professors alike can hike up Tinker Mountain (while wearing costumes and singing, of course). Students seem to respond well to the Hollins method, as 97% are employed or in graduate school within a year of earning their diploma.
Net Price: $21,384/yr
18. Norfolk State University
As both a historically black university and a member of the Thurgood Marshall College fund, Norfolk State makes a great first impression when it comes to supporting minority students. But NSU also does one better: the school is part of the Virginia High-Tech Partnership, which links HBCUs with nearby corporations as a way to provide internships (and hopefully permanent careers) for traditionally underserved students. The school’s 20-year net ROI of $120,000 indicates the success NSU grads typically enjoy, while on-campus activities provide endless opportunities for current students to develop new skills. And commuters, fear not: NSU’s regular program of events will keep you in the loop every step of the way.
Net Price: $11,874/yr
17. University of Virginia College at Wise
Although the University of Virginia’s main campus in Charlottesville is quick to steal the spotlight, college students shouldn’t be too quick to overlook their options at the affiliated College at Wise. Although it share’s its bigger sibling’s academic caliber, the College at Wise is squarely devoted to the liberal arts. Widely recognized as one of the best traditional liberal arts schools in the entire country, this top Virginia college offers an array of majors in all the main staples of academics. In addition, programs like the Center for Teaching Excellence and ROTC training bring an important degree of community involvement to campus.
Net Price: $10,907/yr
16. Old Dominion University
Located in Norfolk on Virginia’s coastline, Old Dominion University is ideally situated for both fun and scholarship. While the nearby beaches and boardwalks can be tempting, ODU students spend plenty of time in the classroom, as well. In fact, one of the school’s best features is its commitment to teaching. 26 professors have received “outstanding faculty” awards from the state, and the vast majority of buildings are equipped with the highest-tech equipment possible to facilitate innovative instruction. And speaking of innovation, Old Dominion University excels where it really counts: research. From alternative energy to nanotechnology, this cheap college in Virginia easily passes for a much more expensive institution.
Net Price: $14,512/yr
15. Liberty University
Liberty University has made a name for itself as one of the most comprehensive online colleges in the nation, but don’t forget about its traditional campus in Virginia! With 16 colleges and schools, 20 NCAA Division I sports, and 35 club teams, Liberty stands tall as the largest collegiate institution in the state. On that note, it’s also the nation’s largest non-profit university and the biggest Evangelical Christian college in the world (if you include the 100,000+ online students). And yet despite its size, don’t expect to waltz onto campus with no effort. Liberty’s 22% acceptance rate makes it one of the state’s more selective schools – so get ready to hit the books!
Net Price: $23,367/yr
14. Bridgewater College
While some students see college as a time to earn a credential, Bridgewater students see it as the perfect opportunity to challenge themselves. While larger, public universities tend to emphasize training for specific careers, Bridgewater stays true to the traditional liberal arts mission: to cultivate a love of learning that gives students the confidence to “raise the bar” on their own standards. Preferring the term “liberating arts,” this cheap Virginia college is anything but stingy when it comes to student engagement. You’ll have the freedom to explore anything you might want to do; in other words, to pursue a passion over a paycheck.
Net Price: $19,303/yr
13. Radford University
In addition to being one of the most affordable colleges in Virginia, Radford University is also well known for its active campus and involved students. There’s always something to do on its 204-acre grounds, whether you want to get involved in media (try ROC TV or Radio Free Radford) or athletics (19 NCAA Division I sports include top basketball and tennis teams). But at the end of the day, Radford “Highlanders” get down to the serious business of studying. Regardless of which major you choose – and Radford houses six distinct colleges with more than 100 degree programs – your future will be bright. The school’s 20-year net ROI tops $200,000!
Net Price: $13,875/yr
12. Longwood University
Farmville might sound like an online computer game, but it’s also one of the most historic towns on the East Coast. Tied to both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, Farmville is a major attraction for those interested in this nation’s past. It’s also the home of Longwood University, a small school of just 5,100 students. Young people choose Longwood not just for its historic surroundings but also for its small campus, stately architecture, and unique mission. Above all, the university seeks to produce “citizen leaders” and encourages students to choose meaningful career paths. In fact, “Liberal Studies” has long been the most popular major on campus, offering a broad curriculum that graduates future teachers, counselors, and librarians.
Net Price: $15,871/yr
11. Hampton University
As one of the premier historically black universities in Virginia, Hampton proudly claims a track record of supporting diversity in higher education. It even briefly established a program for Native Americans, and today Hampton continues to support education for a global community. Fort Monroe, the Virginia Air and Space Center, and the Langley Research Center are all close by, as well as all the beaches and historic sites that distinguish the Chesapeake Bay. But then again, with all the events available on campus you may not even make it to the waterfront! Annual festivities such as the Black History Extravaganza and the Mr. Pirate Competition mix fun and culture all year long.
Net Price: $22,529/yr
10. Christopher Newport University
Newport News, VA
Christopher Newport may be a young school – especially compared to some of the state’s most historic universities – but its future is no less promising. Thanks to its serious commitment to liberal arts values and heavy investment in its students, CNU is now one of the best universities in the South, not to mention one of the top colleges in Virginia! The 260-acre campus is packed full of gleaming facilities that would suggest a much more established university, including a new library, an internationally known arts center designed by famous architect I.M. Pei, and decked out residence halls with an established “Greek Village.” CNU has also quickly risen through the ranks to become one of Virginia’s most selective schools and admits just over half of its applicants (56%).
Net Price: $20,996/yr
9. University of Mary Washington
Although Fredericksburg isn’t exactly Virginia’s most populous city, it holds a unique appeal all its own. Conveniently positioned within an hour’s drive of both Richmond and Washington, D.C., the small town offers a quiet place to study without being completely isolated from city life. Small classes at the University of Mary Washington mimic the cozy feel of the town, and passionate, experienced teachers stand at the helm of classes that are meant to broaden your horizons and stimulate your love of learning. Programs like Environmental Science, Women and Gender Studies, and Leadership and Management Studies let students explore careers that will allow them to really make a difference.
Net Price: $16,780/yr
8. George Mason University
If George Mason’s history is any indication of its future performance, this university is going places. Although it started as a simple extension center for UVA, GMU has skyrocketed to a position of national prominence in just 50 years. In addition to being the largest public research university in the state, Mason is also one of the most impressive; with 34,000 students from 130 different countries (and a new satellite campus in South Korea!) it’s no wonder U.S. News identifies the school as one of the nation’s “up and comers” to watch. Take a tour of its observatory – which houses the largest telescope of any university on the east coast – or check out the gargantuan 185,000 sq. ft. LEED-certified Volgenau School of Engineering, and you’ll soon see why GMU is one of the best colleges in Virginia.
Net Price: $17,347/yr
7. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Anyone even remotely familiar with colleges in this state will quickly identify Virginia Tech as the premier school in the region for STEM – especially engineering. The most comprehensive university and research engine in Virginia, Tech adheres to an educational mission that accentuates hands-on learning, discovery, and engagement above all. But even if you don’t have big plans to work as a biomedical engineer, the school’s 240+ undergraduate and graduate degrees guarantee that you’ll find a place where you fit perfectly. 83% of students receive their diploma within six years, and their success doesn’t end there; practical learning experiences seem to serve this top Virginia college’s alumni well, as the average 20-year net ROI is $496,500.
Net Price: $18,398/yr
6. University of Richmond
It’s difficult to describe the University of Richmond in just one paragraph. Far from fitting a single stereotype, this school combines the best aspects of many types of colleges. It combines a core liberal arts curriculum with top professional schools in business, leadership, and law. Research programs rival those at much larger universities and yet are accessible to all undergrads. In fact, the “Richmond Guarantee” promises that every student will participate in at least one fellowship, internship, or summer research experience before graduating. Plus, with an acceptance rate of just 32% and a 20-year net ROI that approaches $500,000, Richmond inarguably takes its place among the best universities in Virginia – and the nation, for that matter.
Net Price: $24,011/yr
5. James Madison University
If there’s any one area in which James Madison University excels, it’s in its attentiveness to undergrads. While many large public schools tend to turn their focus to graduate students as their research programs grow, JMU has taken a different tack. Even as campus balloons past 20,000 students, 94% of those enrolled are undergraduates. As a B.S. or B.A. degree seeker, you’ll be invited to assist on faculty research projects and explore every one of your academic interests – and since JMU offers more than 120 majors and minors, there really is no end to the possibilities. Considering this affordable Virginia college maintains a graduation rate above 80%, it’s safe to say that James Madison is successful at getting all its students off the sidelines and into the action.
Net Price: $14,772/yr
4. Virginia Military Institute
If you’re looking for an ordinary college, the Virginia Military Institute is not your best bet. As its name suggests, military life is an integral part of the VMI experience, from ROTC units that organize the cadets to mandatory fitness tests each semester. Far from being a distraction from your studies, the military structure is meant to help students focus on what’s important: public service, a respect for leadership, unwavering patriotism, and of course a love of learning. And although VMI offers a limited selection of majors, a supplementary list of minors and concentrations – in highly targeted areas such as Aerospace Engineering and Military History – generates a nearly endless list of ways for you to customize your academic experience.
Net Price: $16,233/yr
3. Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee: a dichotomous name that honors both the nation’s first president and the commander in chief of the Confederate army. And although W&L is about as exclusive as they come – it’s acceptance rate is a slim 19%, making it the most selective in Virginia – the school is anything but divisive. Ambitious students flock to the tiny town of Lexington for what the school dubs “the W&L difference.” This unique approach to education combines an emphasis on analytical, technological, and critical thinking skills with a strong ethical compass – which the university believes is the cornerstone to visionary leadership.
Net Price: $20,700/yr
2. College of William and Mary
One of only eight official “Public Ivies” in the nation, the College of William and Mary fully embodies the definition of “best value.” It’s also the second oldest school in the entire nation, and nearby Colonial Williamsburg offers a quaint reminder of the area’s rich history. The school attracts some of the smartest kids around – both in and out of state – and has become incredibly selective in its admissions policy (only 33% of students are admitted). But no matter how brilliant you are, expect to be challenged at this college; incoming freshmen even take a class in the summer before their first semester as a way to adjust to the demands of William and Mary.
Net Price: $12,406/yr
1. University of Virginia
The University of Virginia has a longstanding reputation as one of the best public schools in the country. It’s the dream college of Virginia residents who are banking on a low in-state tuition rate, and it has become a top choice for out-of-state overachievers as well. UVA might very well be the perfect school, which its incredibly high score of 185/200 (one of the highest we’ve calculated for any state) clearly indicates. A leader in innovation and research, UVA provides no shortage of unique learning opportunities. These opportunities extend to undergrads, who can tackle interdisciplinary problems as they learn about the digital technology behind musical composition and study eastern architecture in New Delhi. Ultimately, student engagement is paramount at this top university in Virginia, which boasts a 94% graduation rate and an appealing $615,000 20-year ROI.
Net Price: $14,069/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.