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In higher education, Colleges, Universities, Academies, and Institutes are all slightly different, but these terms as used in the United States tend to be more interchangeable than the way they are used in other countries. On this list we will be examining the best value colleges and academies in the United States. Both public and private schools are included on this list.


The ranking methodology used to assemble this list is centered on low average student loan debt, which signifies strong financial aid programs available to students. Low average student debt is important when considering the value of a college, as not all majors have the same earning potential. The colleges vary on points of accessibility and other limiting factors, but as a whole the list represents a broad range of schools. Data source: College Navigator/NCES.

#25. Wesleyan College

Macon, GA

This small liberal arts school boasts a 9:1 student to faculty ratio, and an average student debt that comes in well under the national average in spite of the school's tuition, which seems high at first glance. Wesleyan College is one of the most respected schools in the United States, and while the school is selective, it still accepts 24% of applicants, which makes it much more accessible than many of its similarly regarded peers.

#24. College of Charleston

Charleston, SC

Ranked as the #7 best value college by Forbes, the College of Charleston was founded in 1770 and has a rich history of high quality education. The Forbes rankings are based on many factors but the most important of these are post-graduation success, student satisfaction, average student debt, and prestigious, financially significant scholarships won by students on average (which is the mark of a strong financial aid department). This public liberal arts university is considered one of the best of its kind and places a strong emphasis on affordability. Resident tuition is just $10,230.00, and non-resident tuition is still low, especially for a high quality liberal arts school, at $26,000.

#23. The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina

Charleston, SC

U.S. News and World Report ranks The Citadel highly across the board. The Citadel has been ranked in the top ten best value schools in the south by the magazine consistently over the course of the last five years. This consistency is important as one does not just attend a college for one year. The consistent commitment to providing a high quality education and strong financial aid is what makes The Citadel a great choice for any student. The cost of tuition is between $21,000 and $25,000 per year depending on which year students are in. While military service is not require, there is a strong partnership between the school and armed services branches that offer strong financial support to those willing to commit to military service.

#22. Hamilton College

Clinton, NY

Hamilton College features strong career placement opportunities. Student debt is approximately just below the $28,000 national average, which is quite remarkable when one considers that the college is need-blind in admissions and promises to help meet 100% of student financial need. Loans are a part of how this need is met, but considering the cost of the college is well above the $32,000 national average among private universities, students do quite well to come in below the national average for loan debt, with a strong job expectation or a pathway to prestigious graduate programs.

#21. Claremont McKenna College

Claremont, CA

Another small, private liberal arts college, Claremont McKenna College is another institution that looks expensive on first glance (around $59,000 per year depending on which room and board options a student chooses). However, strong financial aid programs that include many scholarships and grants mean that only 35% of students must borrow money to attend, and among those students, the average student debt upon graduation is less than half the national average.

#20. Grinnell College

Grinnell, IA

The class of 2012 at Grinnell College had an average student debt of just $12,350 after loan reduction scholarships were awarded. This is roughly $16,000 under the national average student debt. This number is quite remarkable when considering the cost of the college-$53,000 for room, board and tuition. This is made possible by extensive efforts in the financial aid department, which is committed to reducing student debt as much as possible. Grinnell believes in providing students with all the hallmarks of a great education, without breaking their bank.

#19. College of William and Mary

Williamsburg, VA

Students attending The College of William and Mary may start out with tuition that seems high for a public university-$13,000. However, the university has a plan to offset the higher initial costs by freezing tuition for students at the cost of the year in which they enter the university, and by replacing up to 30% of what would have been loans with grants for middle income students. Students whose parents earn over $100,000 per year will still see 18% of what would have been loans replaced with grants. So overall, though the price may seem higher, the increase in grant funding for undergraduate students will cancel out the increased price, or even mean they graduate with significantly less debt than they would have under the old system.

#18. New College of Florida

Sarasota, FL

This public liberal arts college prides itself on offering an ivy league quality program for an affordable price while increasing accessibility. Room, board and tuition runs around $15,000 for in-state students, and $38,000 for non-residents. The average debt among New College of Florida students who borrowed money to fund their education still comes in under the national average, and considering the quality of the education, and its inclusion in the top three of the Princeton Review's best value colleges for five years running, this school is a top consideration for any student looking for good value, especially Florida residents.

#17. Vassar College

Poughkeepsie, NY

This selective liberal arts college has one of the best reputations among the accredited best value schools. With a low average student loan debt of just over $18,000 in spite of its cost of nearly $60,000 per year in tuition, it's easy to see why Vassar College is considered such a good value. Students will enjoy an 8:1 student to faculty ratio, and all financial aid is need-based.

#16. Boston College

 Chestnut Hill, MA

With an average cost of $57,000 per year, the average student debt of Boston college is just over $20,000, well below the national average of $28,000. Boston College is one of the more accessible best value accredited private colleges with an admittance rate of 28%, so while it's not a sure thing for every student, this high quality college is more accessible than many top colleges.

#15. Haverford College

Lower Merion, PA

This college features a student to faculty ration of 8:1 which is low, even among the highest level liberal arts colleges. Such a low ratio means that tuition tends to be high, and tuition here is high at just over $58,000, which makes the average student debt even more incredible at just over $16,000. Haverford College boasts numerous Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Rhodes and Fulbright scholars. Students attending this college can expect the highest level of education, and the increased earning potential that comes with it, while not being saddled with high student debt.

#14. Thomas Aquinas College

Saint Paula, CA

The most accessible college on our list, Thomas Aquinas College accepts 78% of applicants. This shouldn't cause students pause however, as the college is highly regarded, ranked #81 among liberal arts colleges nationwide by U.S. News and World Report. Kiplinger ranks the school among the top best value schools in the country, with an average student debt of just over $16,500 upon graduation.

#13. Goshen College

Goshen, IN

Goshen College is another accessible school, accepting 59% of applicants, while maintaining a reputation as one of the top liberal arts schools in the country. The total cost per year is lower than most schools of its kind, at just over $36,000 per year, and the average student debt upon graduation is just $16,700, which is $12,000 less than the national average.

#12. Whitman College

Walla Walla, WA

With a 10:1 student faculty ratio, Whitman College manages to be accessible, accepting 53% of applicants, while maintaining high standards of education for students. The average student debt upon graduation is just $17,700, markedly less than the $54,000 per year tuition might lead one to predict.

#11. Principia College

Elsah, IL

This affordable accredited college accepts 61% of applicants, and tuition runs just $36,000 per year. Principia College students graduate with an average of $18,000 in student loans among students that do borrow, though many don't. This is accomplished through extensive help from the financial aid office, which awards students with many need-based and merit-based scholarships to help pay the way.

#10. Swarthmore College

Swarthmore, PA

USA Today ranked Swarthmore College as the #1 best value college from among the top 100 list published by the Princeton Review for the third straight year. Factors in the ranking are the quality of the undergraduate program, costs, financial aid, and a strong ratio of student debt to earnings potential. Swarthmore is one of the most highly regarded liberal arts colleges in the country. In a day an age where liberal arts seems to be less valued than other methods of learning, it is interesting that students attending high level liberal arts institutions tend to perform better in the job market than many other styles of education. 52% of attendees receive need-based financial aid and 70% share in over 38 million dollars in scholarships and work study programs to help reduce the high cost of room, board, and tuition, which combined amounts to just over $57,000 per year. Average student debt is just over $16,000 per year.

#9. Scripps College

Claremont, CA

This small liberal arts college has a 36% acceptance rate, and among students that must take out loans, its average student debt is several thousand dollars under the national student debt average. Scripps College has been a womens college since it was founded by Ellen Browning Scripps, a powerful figure in early women's rights movements in the United States. The college exists to provide women with an education uniquely tailored to help them succeed and understand how best to effect positive change around the world for all women.

#8. Pomona College

Claremont, CA

Hailed by both USA Today and the Today Show as one of the best value colleges in the country, Pomona College is another high grade liberal arts school that seems expensive at first. Of course when you take into account that financial aid is primarily need-based, and only 47% of students end up needing to borrow money to pay for their education, and the average student debt among those students is just over $10,000, $18,000 below the national average, you begin to see a picture of why the school is considered such a great value.

#7. Williams College

Williamstown, MA

While Williams College is very expensive on paper, the financial aid office is committed to providing students who deserve and want to be there with the means to pay for it, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. Up until a few years ago, Williams was able to do this without their students even needing to take out student loans. However, their no-loan policy has since been changed as the economy makes it more necessary for students to exercise this option. Still, Williams seeks to minimize student debt. Only 43% of students at Williams ended up needing to resort to loans to cover what they lacked in other financial aid, and the median student debt among that 43% was just over $8,000, roughly $20,000 under the national student debt average.

#6. United States Military Academy: West Point

West Point, NY

The legendary military academy, West Point, is difficult to get into, but is a fantastic option for those interested in military service with the U.S. Army post-graduation. The tuition for those who are accepted is free. This is because all those attending the school must serve in the armed forces. It's not a trade-off that everybody will be comfortable with, but West Point is one of the most respected schools in the country, and graduates will have both high class education, and military service experience when eventually entering the job market.

#5. United States Naval Academy

Annapolis, MD

A similar deal to West Point, students of the Naval Academy will serve in the U.S. Navy for a period of time after graduation. All of the military academies are highly respected, and so choosing between them comes down to which branch of the military prospective students prefer to serve in after graduation. Students at the U.S. Naval Academy receive a well-rounded education, designed to train military officers capable of critical thinking and understanding the importance of the structure of the armed forces. The education and subsequent military service takes many different forms, and there are many options for students seeking to go into various fields such as engineering, the sciences, administration, and more. The tuition costs $0, as it is replaced with a commitment to military service.

#4. United States Air Force Academy

Colorado Springs, CO

The United States Air Force is much more than flying and maintaining airplanes. Any student interested in a technology centered career should consider United States Air Force Academy. The Air Force is responsible for securing the communications of the various branches of the armed forces. There are many computer technology, IT, network security, and computer engineering opportunities here, and students that have graduated from such a program and served in the USAF afterwards often go on to hold high level positions in private companies if they decide to leave the military. The tuition is $0 as it is replaced with a commitment to military service.

#3. Wellesley College

Wellesley, MA

With a 30% acceptance rate, Wellesley is a high quality and accessible liberal arts institution. Ranked in the top 10 of Kiplinger's best value liberal arts colleges, the college focuses on being as affordable as possible, while still providing a high quality education for students. Wellesley, a women's only college, has educated many powerful women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright. The average student debt for the few students that must borrow to pay for Wellesley College is just over $13,000, less than half the national average.

#2. Amherst College

Amherst, MA

Amherst College is ranked as the #4 best value college by Kiplinger. The high quality liberal arts education results in increased earning potential for graduates, with a track record of success in their academic and professional careers. The average student debt for graduates who borrowed money (Amherst averages approximately $41,000 per year in need-based financial aid alone) was $12,700, making this one of the cheapest best value colleges.

#1. Berea College

Berea, KY

Berea College is committed to providing students with an affordable, high quality option for college. Every student admitted to Berea receives a 4 year scholarship of $100,000, intended, when combined with other forms of financial aid, to completely cover the cost of attendance for all four years a student is at Berea. This small liberal arts school is a bit off the radar for most, but when you consider that it is free or nearly free for every student who attends, it's hard to argue that it shouldn't be considered a best value school. Kiplinger ranks Berea in its top 100 best value liberal arts schools, and it is ranked #1 best value among schools where students pay under $20,000 per year on average. The average student debt upon graduation for the few students who do borrow money is one of the lowest among private colleges in the country at just over $7,000 which is $21,000 under the national average.

Filed under: Best Value Colleges

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