By Richard Vedder, Luke Myers, Jonathan Leirer and Jonathan Robe
When most of us shop for goods, we do NOT buy the best ones available, but rather we buy the best goods available given their cost and our available resources. We might want to own a Rolls Royce, but buy a Toyota Camry instead since the Camry gives better value to us given our financial situation and the cost of the car. So it is with colleges. In conjunction with Forbes, we have prepared a list of the 600 best American colleges and universities. But the average consumer is at least as interested in “what schools are the best value given both their quality and their price?”
Accordingly, we have prepared a list of 100 Best Buy American colleges and universities, after both institutional quality and the typical cost of tuition after average discounts are considered (e.g., scholarships). While the Best College top 100 is dominated by private schools, a large majority (61 percent) on the Best Buy list are public institutions –because, on average, public institutions are less expensive to attend than private ones.
Our top best value school is Berea College, an Appalachian Kentucky school long admired by CCAP. It is a private school that is high quality, easily making our list of top 100 best colleges, but it is especially known for its fierce and total commitment to affordability and student access for low income students (indeed, the school intentionally discriminates against students from high income homes). At Berea, most students pay no net tuition, and all earn some income working their way through school. The large school endowment is used not to hire tons of high priced administrators or superstar research professors but rather to keep the school affordable. A somewhat similar thing occurs at Cooper Union in New York City, another of our top 10 value schools.
A number of flagship state universities rank in the top 25 on our Best Buy list, including some famed schools that one might expect, like the Universities of Virginia, North Carolina (Chapel Hill), California (three campuses: UCLA, Berkeley and Riverside) and Texas (Austin), but some lesser known, such as fifth ranked University of Wyoming and 18th ranked Mississippi State University. A unique public school, New College, a liberal arts college in Florida, is the overall top ranked public school for value. Five of the top 25 schools are public military institutions –the major service academies, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and the Virginia Military Institute.
Perhaps the most noticeable, and arguably shameful, thing is that the nation’s wealthiest private universities (e.g., Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), and liberal arts colleges (e.g. Williams, Amherst, and Grinnell) do not make the top 100 Best Buy list. Unlike Berea and Cooper Union that passionately believe in using their resources to keep costs low, these elite Eastern schools are expensive, although recent initiatives to reduce costs to lower and middle income students have made them more attractive to large segments of potential applicants. Still, they use endowment to improve research, have a nicer physical plant, pay their staff more, etc., as opposed to concentrating on making the schools affordable. Even with endowment reductions since the financial crisis of 2008, Harvard, Yale and Princeton could easily eliminate tuition fees for all students and still spend far more per student than most institutions.
While a majority of the 100 top colleges based on quality are in the East, a majority of the Best Buy schools are in Sun Belt states in the South and West (California alone has 11, the two Carolinas 12). The East (important exception: New York) and the Midwest are severely underrepresented; there are no schools in such populous states as Pennsylvania, Ohio and, incredibly (given the number of wealthy prestigious schools), Massachusetts.
Twenty-three schools make both the top 100 Best College and top 100 Best Buy list, including 13 private and 10 public institutions. Two schools –the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Air Force Academy –make the top 10 on both lists. There are a number of hidden gems –schools with a good local or regional reputation but little known nationally- that are high on both lists. Among the liberal arts colleges in that category: Salem, Wesleyan (GA), Wabash, Centenary, Centre, Hillsdale, Hendrix, Ripon, and Doane colleges and Transylvania University. Only one prestigious private university in the top schools in the Best College list also makes the top 100 on the Best Buy list: the California Institute of Technology.
The Best Buy rankings were calculated by taking the score derived in calculating the “Best College” rankings minus the debt load component of those rankings (to avoid double counting) and dividing by the average net (after federal, state and institutional grants) tuition over the period 2003-2006. A more comprehensive discussion of methodology is available on our web site.
Top 100 Best Buys