By Iris Stone
In this ranking, we highlight the best values among Wisconsin colleges and universities. For online options, see our ranking of the best value online colleges in Wisconsin.
Like many of its Northern, Midwestern neighbors, Wisconsin sits at the head of the pack when it comes to affordability, all thanks to its low cost of living and overall rural geography. Of course you’ll also find expensive schools in Wisconsin, but in most cases you’ll find the cost well justified. Extremely high-quality academics, pristine natural views, supportive communities, and active students are practically ubiquitous on college campuses in this state, and those who choose to attend one of the public schools (UW universities fill out 6 of the top 10 spots on this ranking) will be especially pleased with both their experiences and their bank account.
And for us, that combination was at the heart of our methodology. By focusing on a combination of carefully selected metrics, namely graduation rate, net price, acceptance rate, and net return on investment, we have been able to highlight the top Wisconsin colleges that are cheap financially but rich experientially.
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 94 to 168, 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 Wisconsin.
Ranking the Best Values in Wisconsin Colleges and Universities
20. Carthage College
Cultivating the ideal academic environment requires a careful balance – students should feel challenged but supported, engaged but reflective. This Wisconsin college is up to the task, and it works to foster a spirit of self-discovery and reflection within a “culture of high expectation.” Students may feel pressure to get good grades, but they won’t sacrifice their love of learning as a result. Carthage also strikes an ideal balance when it comes to location. Its 80-acre campus is spotted with trees and green spaces and offers a spectacular view of Lake Michigan, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be confined to rural living. Chicago and Milwaukee are both close enough to inspire weekend trips and serve as a treasure trove of internships and networking opportunities.
Net Price: $27,385/yr
19. Lawrence University
Lawrence University isn’t just any liberal arts college. In addition to its function as a traditional residential school, Lawrence also hosts a full-fledged conservatory of music and is entirely devoted to undergraduate education. The campus population is small – a mere 1,500 students – but that doesn’t mean you’ll be bored. Lawrence intentionally seeks to attract “intellectually curious, diverse, multi-interested students” from all over the world, and you’ll be surprised at how many different people you’ll meet on the quaint 425-acre campus. This top Wisconsin college is also an advocate of engaged learning, which means that classrooms frequently include debates, research, performances, and creative projects rather than passive lectures.
Net Price: $27,707/yr
18. Silver Lake College of the Holy Family
This Wisconsin college is a religious institution built on Franciscan Catholic principles, but that doesn’t mean the atmosphere is stuffy or the curriculum rigid. In fact, many students choose SLC because the learning environment is dynamic, open-minded, respectful, and friendly. Whether you want to major in business or theology, biology or choral music, you’ll enjoy equal support at this northern campus. In short, Sliver Lake is one of the best colleges in Wisconsin for those who seek an equal balance between secular studies and their faith. Just take a look at the calendar of student events – you could attend a student academic symposium one week and take a Franciscan Pilgrimage the next!
Net Price: $18,681/yr
17. University of Wisconsin Platteville
This Wisconsin university is the fastest-growing school in the UW system. Why is Platteville such a popular choice for residents of this northern state? Although it doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as Madison, Platteville has plenty to offer – 821 acres of campus space, including a research farm; 200+ student organizations; and more than 400 qualified faculty (no teaching assistants!). UW Platteville also has some great collaborative programs, including an engineering partnership with local community colleges and a National Student Exchange, which lets you spend an entire semester studying at another NSE university in North America.
Net Price: $13,006/yr
16. University of Wisconsin Stout
The University of Wisconsin Stout has a nearly identical score to its Platteville sibling, but its identity is all its own. Dubbed “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University,” this affordable Wisconsin college offers modern facilities, high-tech course offerings, and enviable career prep. Its programs include numerous degrees in applied mathematics and computer science, as well as engineering, business, manufacturing, technology, and vocational subjects. With so many career-oriented options in some of the most in-demand fields of the 21st century, it’s no surprise Stout boasts a 20-year ROI of more than $380,000 – the third highest in the entire UW system!
Net Price: $13,280/yr
15. Concordia University Wisconsin
WebsiteThis Wisconsin university is a unique standout among institutions in American higher education. The CU system operates much like a state public school network, in that each campus shares the same basic name and resources but operates with its own administration. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod controls each of the ten campuses (which are spread across the entire country), and religion is an important part of the curriculum. CU Wisconsin is no exception; students attend daily chapel services, and 62% report regularly engaging in spiritual activities (twice the national average). But while Concordia is clearly a top college in Wisconsin for religious study, it’s not narrow-minded. Nearly two-dozen NCAA athletic teams, 60+ liberal arts degree programs, and recreation activities in nearby Mequon provide plenty of secular relief.
Net Price: $23,178/yr
14. Viterbo University
La Crosse, WI
The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration founded Viterbo University back in 1890, and the university maintains this everlasting positivity even 125 years later. Professors genuinely care about their students and lead small classes that give everyone an equal opportunity to participate. Inspired by its religious roots, this top university in Wisconsin encourages students to excel not just academically or spiritually, but culturally and socially as well. And people tend to make good use of this supportive environment; even a brief conversation with a Viterbo student will likely include discussion of the academic credit they received for studying abroad, their participation in the annual “Scholar’s Day” for research, and their pending internship in nearby La Crosse – or even Washington, D.C.!
Net Price: $17,850/yr
13. Beloit College
If you’re looking for creativity, diversity, and intellectual curiosity, this Wisconsin college should absolutely be at the top of your list. The school offers students unparalleled freedom to choose their curriculum and pick majors that fuel their passions. Its faculty are among the most accessible in the country, according to The Princeton Review, while the student body includes members of more than 40 countries. But perhaps the most unique aspect of Beloit is the fact that no more than 10% of any graduating class shares the same major; unlike targeted engineering or art schools, Beloit is one of the best universities in Wisconsin for students who want course variety and an eclectic mix of classmates.
Net Price: $24,230/yr
12. Lakeland College
Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond? There’s no one right answer to that question, but they way you respond says a lot about the type of college you should choose. This Wisconsin college is a “big fish, small pond” school, one where you will garner name recognition and a lasting identity with classmates and faculty alike. Lakeland is also one of the most affordable colleges in Wisconsin financial aid packages that average 24,000 a year (and free shuttle services, fitness centers, and laundry facilities don’t hurt!).
Net Price: $20,519/yr
11. Ripon College
Ripon may populate its campus with only about 1,000 students each year, but it’s not for lack of popularity! The school’s 67% acceptance rate rivals that of some of the large state schools, but it offers an entirely different academic experience. High-achieving learners choose Ripon for its friendly campus, serious scholarly attitude, and historic location. The city – also named Ripon – has been called “the birthplace of the Republican party” and features quaint, century-old buildings and an authentic family-friendly feel. Students feel safe and protected in the comforting embrace of this small town – but make no mistake – life in Ripon isn’t boring! But if you’re really itching for adventure, there are plenty of larger cities within traveling distance.
Net Price: $20,559/yr
10. Wisconsin Lutheran College
If you’re not interested in developing leadership skills or taking ownership for your education, move along to the next description. Wisconsin Lutheran College is a premier liberal arts institution that imparts important skills not just through organized classes, but simply by example. Professors stand as moral role models who inspire their students to be responsible and ethical members of society, while your friendly but competitive classmates will push you to be your best. As a Lutheran institution, this cheap Wisconsin college is rich in faith – and campus ministry is a popular extracurricular activity among students. Other school-sponsored organizations include The Sword student newspaper, a bass fishing team, and a mariachi band!
Net Price: $19,202/yr
9. University of Wisconsin Stevens Point
Stevens Point, WI
One of the more prominent Wisconsin state universities is Stevens Point, a student-centric campus and one of the great cheap colleges in Wisconsin. With its attractively low net price and a competitive 20-year net ROI of $178,000, Stevens Point makes a great first impression on the budget-conscious. And speaking of first impressions, you’ll have a chance to make yours during the popular first-year seminars. These small classes ask you to explore life’s biggest philosophical questions while also planning your own personal journey through school. The confidence students gain in these early seminars serve them well as they discover everything else Stevens Point has to offer, from Outdoor EdVentures to student-run “centertainment” programs.
Net Price: $11,561/yr
8. University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Although many students don’t bother to carefully vet schools by their mission statement, you might be surprised by how much a university’s priorities can influence your own. At this Wisconsin university, this means you’ll end up valuing education, responsiveness, leadership, sustainability, and service – not a bad combination! Students who fully embrace the Oshkosh campus culture enjoy access to some truly one-of-a-kind experiences; how would you like to join the most successful Model United Nations program in the world, or write for a five-time national award-winning student newspaper? Oshkosh qualifies as one of the best Wisconsin colleges for many reasons, but especially for business students. The business school is in the top 15% of all universities nationwide!
Net Price: $12,171/yr
7. Milwaukee School of Engineering
When it comes to schools that pay off, this Wisconsin engineering school deserves a standing ovation. That might not come as much of a surprise, considering the entire college is devoted to degree programs in one of the nation’s most lucrative fields. Still, MSOE’s 20-year net ROI is large enough to get anyone’s attention $523,000 large, that is. What’s more, an impressive 96% of graduates find a job or start graduate school within a year of leaving the campus. If it isn’t already obvious, you can’t really go wrong at MSOE! Majors include Biomolecular Engineering, Software Engineering, Technical Communication, and Nursing.
Net Price: $22,019/yr
6. Marquette University
At this Wisconsin university, your mission is simple: Be the Difference. What does that mean? Combine the school’s international student body, emphasis on critical thinking, and rigorous academics and you have your answer: it means proactively working to become independent, open-minded, and culturally proficient in a way that will allow you to make a large-scale impact after graduation. Of course, you don’t have to wait to earn alumni status in order to build your resume. Between 100+ study abroad options and special programs like the Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C., students at this top college in Wisconsin have no excuse not to get involved – and the 79% of students who graduate in six years or less will tell you it was worth it!
Net Price: $32,900/yr
5. Mount Mary University
Mount Mary University is all about creativity – and that’s not just a message for the art students. Everyone at MMU benefits from a campus environment that encourages them to concoct new ideas and push boundaries. Graphic Design students can showcase their skills at the annual CREO: Fashion, Art, and Design Show; Mathematics majors can join the “Mount Mary Students Experimenting with Science” campus organization; and business students can write their own marketing plans and prepare to be entrepreneurs. In other words, MMU is all-inclusive in its mission to engage students, but we warned! The competitive admissions rate – 35% – means you’ll have to work hard to be included on the mailing list of acceptance letters.
Net Price: $13,665/yr
4. University of Wisconsin Whitewater
Unsurprisingly, the top four schools on this list are all members of the UW state system. That’s because the state’s public schools are some of the most affordable colleges in Wisconsin, and in-state residents are grateful! This Wisconsin university has only officially been a part of the system since 1971, but it has very quickly adopted the spirit that makes the UW system so great. Above all, students at Whitewater are experts at getting involved; from the Hawk Internship for undergrads and the Disney College Program to volunteer positions with America Reads and fun events on “Make a Difference Day,” this top Wisconsin college is overflowing with activity.
Net Price: $11,575/yr
3. University of Wisconsin Eau Claire
Eau Claire, WI
There’s a reason this Wisconsin university is rated among the top 10 public universities in the Midwest. Actually, there are several! For starters, the 68% graduation rate is the second highest in the entire University of Wisconsin system (tied with La Crosse). In addition, its 292,000 ROI is among the best of all state public schools, according to PayScale data. But what makes this school really unique is “the power of AND.” This tagline embodies the essence of why the Eau Claire is one of the best universities in Wisconsin; instead of being pigeonholed, students here have the opportunity to explore their career goals, personal interests, hobbies, other cultures, challenging activities, AND anything else they could imagine!
Net Price: $12,439/yr
2. University of Wisconsin La Crosse
La Crosse, WI
We’ve already mentioned that this Wisconsin university has the second highest graduation rate of any UW school, but it takes more than that to earn the #2 spot on a “best value” ranking. The 76% acceptance rate is one of the more selective among state public schools, while the $333,000 20-year ROI is the 5th highest in Wisconsin – public or private! Of course, you won’t notice this list of statistics in your every day life in La Crosse, but you will enjoy a homey, traditional college feel (96% of freshmen choose to live on campus) and a spirited, loyal student body (85% of freshmen return to the school for their sophomore year).
Net Price: $12,745/yr
1. University of Wisconsin Madison
Is it any surprise that this Wisconsin university clinches the #1 spot? When it comes to ranking metrics, this top university in Wisconsin knocks the ball way out of the park: an 84% graduation rate, a 57% acceptance rate, a $381,000 20-year net ROI, and an annual net price that almost seems too good to be true. But beyond the facts and figures, students choose Madison because of the eclectic mix of opportunities it offers. Competitive athletes have their choice of more than 20 NCAA Division I sports, while competitive scholars can take their pick of nearly 4,800 courses. And like all the best Wisconsin colleges, Madison hosts campus organizations to suit every interest – you can even join the “Badger Ballistics” and spend your days launching model rockets!
Net Price: $16,131/yr
This concludes our ranking of the best values among Wisconsin colleges and universities.
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.