By Iris Stone
Washington state is known for beautiful landscapes and rainy weather – and as the home of Starbucks – but Washington is also a great place to attend college. The cost of living is somewhat lower than in many of the big cities on the East Coast, but the quality of education is just as high. The University of Washington public school system is no doubt one of the more popular choices, but both in-state and out-of-state residents can also fulfill their university wish lists at any one of the state’s esteemed private liberal arts colleges, such as Gonzaga and Whitman.
For a ranking of online options in the state, see Best Value Online Colleges and Universities in Washington.
Accurately determining the true “best value” schools out of any given pool of candidates can be a somewhat precarious task, especially given the difficulty in identifying “quality” traits that will appeal to all applicants – or even in defining a universal definition of affordability! But by sticking to the basics – net annual price, admissions rate, graduation rate, and financial success post-graduation – this ranking seeks to offer readers a list of universities that have [nearly] balanced the scales of cost and quality.
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 93 to 145, 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 Washington.
15. Central Washington University
Looking for a reliable investment? You may find it in Central Washington University, one of the best colleges in Washington. With a 20-year ROI of $317,200, it’s hard to find a better school in Washington from a numbers’ point-of-view. CWU is a mid-size university of 10,000 students set in Ellensburg, a small town with state-wide recognition as one of Washington’s most beautiful places to live. There’s no need to worry about what Ellensburg may lack—CWU makes up for it with a dynamic, diverse, and active student body. At CWU, you have your choice of more than 125 student organizations including Cosplay & Costuming, Urban Beekeepers, CWU Hip-Hop, Russian Language, and Astronomy.
Net Price: $14,199/yr
14. University of Puget Sound
The University of Puget Sound is a small university packing a big punch. Besides its well-reputed school of music, Puget’s science labs have also garnered national recognition from The Princeton Review. In a tight community of 2,600—where it’s said “Once a Logger, always a Logger”—you are sure to find the support that you need every step of the way to graduation. Speaking of graduation, Puget graduates 76% of its students within six years and, among graduates, the average 20-year ROI is a comfortable $240,900. In addition to sound academics, you can count on heavy community engagement. As the school says, they like to put “the ivory tower at street level.”
Net Price: $38,590/yr
13. Seattle Pacific University
Seattle Pacific University is a Christian school with a well-known reputation for professors with knowledge and heart who care deeply about their students. That sort of investment from faculty has lead SPU to earn a #2 ranking for best value universities in the West from U.S. News & World Report and also helps SPU maintain a 78% graduation rate. Originally established in 1891 as Seattle Seminary, today you will find 4,000 students passionately engaged in their academics—and spiritual calling—in Seattle’s scenic Queen Anne Hill neighborhood. In addition to its standing as a solid academic and spiritual investment, you can also look forward to a strong financial return as SPU’s 20-year ROI is $356,500.
Net Price: $26,584/yr
12. Pacific Lutheran University
It’s pretty safe to say that Pacific Lutheran University is not your typical Christian college. Few schools—religiously affiliated or otherwise—can claim the same level of engagement with the larger world as PLU. In addition to hosting denominational and inter-faith conferences on campus, the school recently stepped up to help welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tacoma. On campus, PLU is home to a diverse group of students; nearly one in three identifies as a person of color. Interested in media production? PLU’s MediaLab has produced 15 documentaries in nine years, winning numerous awards along the way—including an Emmy! Be sure to include PLU on your list of top Washington colleges.
Net Price: $25,086/yr
11. Whitworth University
Located in Washington’s second-largest city, Whitworth has been investing considerable time and money in developing its campus. In recent years, the school has poured $100 million of investment into its infrastructure – and all construction projects since 2010 have been LEED-certified. Next up? The Cowles Music Center is undergoing substantial renovations and a 37,000 sq. ft. expansion is set to open in the fall of 2016. Continued investments such as these have helped Whitworth go toe-to-toe against the best Washington colleges around. As an affiliate of the Presbyterian Church, students are equipped to follow Christ, serve their community and thrive academically. And thrive they do: the graduation rate stands at a steady 75%.
Net Price: $26,037/yr
10. Eastern Washington University
Minutes away from Spokane, Eastern Washington University offers students a mix of urban and rural living, combining a small campus atmosphere with robust NCAA Division I athletics. The student body includes 13,000 individuals who hail from 43 states and 70 countries. And while the school is officially mid-size, the Eagles adopt a small-size attitude where you can count on a safe, friendly atmosphere. EWU is sure to have programs of interest to even the most eclectic and undecided of students, making it a fixture on any list of cheap Washington colleges. Offerings include Disability Studies and Universal Access, Military Science, Creative Writing, and American Indian Studies. As compensation for your time, you’ll be well-rewarded with an average ROI of $231,700 over 20 years.
Net Price: $11,954/yr
9. Walla Walla University
College Place, WA
For a small school, Walla Walla University offers a surprising range of programs, including Aviation, Cytotechnology/Clinical Lab Science, Entrepreneurship/Small Business, Web Design, and more. WWU is just shy of 2000 students (the majority of whom are undergraduates), which ensures young learners get all the attention they need. Affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, students have numerous ways to get engaged in the world through missions programs and service learning. When you’re not in class, you have plenty of options to enjoy the world around you. For example the town of Walla Walla, which sits just down the road, has a long reputation as one of America’s favorite small towns. If you prefer the outdoors, there’s nowhere better. The region’s mild climate will let you make the most of the surrounding Blue Mountains year-round.
Net Price: $23,766/yr
8. Western Washington University
Western Washington University, undoubtedly one of the best universities in Washington, is home to both challenging academics and spirited Vikings athletic teams. But WWU’s appeal isn’t limited to the campus grounds. Take full advantage of nearby Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. – both of which offer great internship opportunities and are accessible by train and bus. While perhaps it could be said that Western Washington has less recognition than other schools in the state, WWU offers unique features that others do not. For example, a twice-weekly newspaper gives students a chance to get their hands dirty in publishing and build up a portfolio. And since the school is 95% undergrad, you’ll have opportunities to work with faculty on research that elsewhere would go to graduate students.
Net Price: $15,184/yr
7. University of Washington Bothell
The University of Washington–Bothell only just opened its doors in 1990. Already, it’s on the fast-track for a prime position as one of the best cheap colleges in Washington. Since 2010 the school has added 33 new majors and nearly doubled the number of faculty. For its 5,000 students (a number that’s sure to continue a steady upward climb), UW–Bothell is a strong investment that offers $287,500 in a 20-year ROI. And of those 5,000 students, nearly half represent ethnic minority communities and add an important sense of diversity to classrooms. New in the fall of 2015: the 36,000 sq ft Activities & Recreation Center (ARC), designed specifically to address students’ feedback.
Net Price: $9,209/yr
6. Washington State University
Life in Pullman invites you to enjoy rural living at its finest. Bike around town or on neighboring trails, savor food fresh from the nation’s largest organic teaching farm, or get out and take advantage of the splendor of the Snake River and Bitterroot Mountains. Attending Washington State University is more than pretty scenery. Carnegie Classifications has recognized WSU for its “very high research activity”—a coveted distinction. WSU is also home to one of only two veterinary schools in the entire Pacific Northwest. Alumni are busy leading successful careers in all 50 states and help WSU maintain an average ROI of $379,500 over 20 years. All things considered, its easy to see that this is one of the top colleges in Washington.
Net Price: $16,427/yr
5. University of Washington Tacoma
Since opening in 1990, the University of Washington in Tacoma has been a driving force behind the city’s downtown renaissance. As more and more businesses flock to this flourishing region, Tacoma students reap all the benefits – from trendy new restaurants to exciting internship opportunities. Going to school in the city is rarely this feasible, but UW–Tacoma is admirably budget-friendly and ranks among the most affordable Washington colleges. The university has also embraced the progressive thinking that so many West Coast residents espouse, and majors like Sustainable Urban Development and Environmental Studies have put UW–Tacoma on the front lines of addressing the ongoing drought in the region. With in-demand, practice degree options like these, it’s no surprise the 20-year ROI has climbed to $442,600.
Net Price: $9,410/yr
4. Seattle University
As a Jesuit institution of higher learning, Seattle University is part of a proud tradition that places service to the community at its core. SU opens its doors to just 4,500 individuals, but from its perch in Seattle’s famous Capitol Hill neighborhood students will feel like the world is at their fingertips. And yet campus life is anything but overwhelming; a 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio and attentive professors make sure you’ll feel right at home in the classroom. U.S. News consistently ranks SU among the top 10 universities in the West, and its 78% graduation rate and 20-year net ROI of more than $350k certainly don’t hurt!
Net Price: $34,360/yr
3. Whitman College
Walla Walla, WA
At Whitman, you’ll get a chance to be a part of a highly motivated, passionate student body of about 1,500 where the student-to-faculty ratio is a cozy 9:1. Crucial to your education at Whitman is “Foundations” —a two-semester program of comprehensive, multi-disciplinary courses that cover everything from philosophy and religion to anthropology and geology. Learning is a full-time pursuit for students at WC, and this genuine, passionate love of learning is what makes Whitman one of the most respected liberal arts schools in America – and of the best colleges in Washington, for that matter! And yet despite its lofty reputation, many students simply say that Whitman feels like family. Consequent of this close atmosphere, the school enjoys a nearly unmatched 87% graduation rate.
Net Price: $33,788/yr
2. Gonzaga University
Think you have what it takes to be a Zag? Gonzaga may not be one of the most affordable colleges in Washington, but it is certainly one of the most respected—and best remunerated. The average 20-year return on investment stands at a statewide best of $449,700. Set on a 152-acre riverfront campus just outside downtown Spokane, the campus provides a spacious and vibrant home to 7,400 students. A degree from Gonzaga portends great things. Don’t believe us? Ask Christine Grigoire, the state’s first female attorney general. Or three of the state’s Supreme Court justices. Or the 20 graduates currently serving in the Peace Corps. Whatever your experience at Gonzaga today, you can be sure that success will undoubtedly be a part of your future!
Net Price: $31,269/yr
1. University of Washington Seattle
If you want to shape the future, this is the place to do it. The University of Washington Seattle is an international hub for research activity, recently ranked as the “most innovative public university” in the world by Reuters. To that end, the school just signed an agreement with one of China’s premier research universities to collaborate on “smart city” innovations to make urban centers healthier, safer, and more environmentally sound. In fact, the school invested nearly $1.4 billion in research in 2014 alone! That same year, 87% of the 467 patents filed through UW had student contributors. If it’s not already obvious, read it here: even among the absolute top universities in Washington, UW Seattle is the true king.
Net Price: $10,374/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.