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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Brendan Pedersen, Staff Writer
| July 25, 2019
You’ve no doubt heard of the Ivy League schools, and you may know quite a bit about colleges and universities that are in your area. But with more than 4,000 institutions of higher learning from which to choose, it’s smart to cast a wide net.
The following schools may not be on your radar, but If you’re looking for a challenging educational environment at an affordable price, they’re worth a look.
Location: Socorro, N.M.
Rank: #299 (#44 in public colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,471
Four-year grad. rate: 20%
Total annual cost: $31,908 out-of-state, $17,410 in-state
Avg. need-based aid: $6,059
Avg. graduating debt: $23,065
Nestled inside the Rio Grande River Valley just south of Albuquerque, this state school has much more to offer than its name may suggest. Though it was founded in the late 19th century as the “School of Mines” in a raucous boom town, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology offers one of the country’s strongest STEM-focused curriculums from an affordable public institution.
The school’s proximity to the outdoors is a plus, too. Socorro is surrounded by nature reserves in all directions and is only a few hours from the iconic Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona—a nice plus if you happen to be interested in the school’s geology program.
Location: Sarasota, Fla.
Rank: #168 (#23 in public colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 835
Four-year grad. rate: 57%
Total annual cost: $40,408 out-of-state, $17,380 in-state
Avg. need-based aid: $9,932
Avg. graduating debt: $16,297
Is it fair to call something “new” 18 years after the fact? Either way, the sheen hasn’t worn off of this hidden gem on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The convoluted history of the New College of Florida—founded as a private, liberal arts school in 1960, scooped up by the University of South Florida in 1975, and finally spun off on its own as an autonomous, government-designated “Honors College” in 2001—doesn’t detract from its unique appeal.
The NCF combines the advantages of a top-notch private liberal arts college with the affordability of a state-sponsored public university. The approximately 800 students can take advantage of a wide liberal arts class catalog while going sailing, kayaking or scuba diving—after studying, of course.
Location: Grinnell, Iowa
Rank: #21 (#14 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,712
Four-year grad. rate: 84%
Total annual cost: $68,546
Avg. need-based aid: $41,344
Avg. graduating debt: $19,392
Originally founded as the “Iowa College” in 1848 with starting tuition of $24 (just two years after Iowa was granted statehood), Grinnell College has made its name on the Midwestern prairie as a top-tier private school, ranking number 14 on our list of best value liberal arts colleges.
Grinnell distinguishes itself with affordable tuition and a challenging course catalog, along with small classes. More than 84% of undergrads score above a 30 on the ACT, and Grinnell is one of the country’s top producers of Fulbright Scholars. Famous alumni include Silicon Valley actor Kumail Nanjiani, Paul McCulley, a partner at Pimco, and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel.
Location: Carlisle, Pa.
Rank: #58 (#32 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,382
Four-year grad. rate: 80%
Total annual cost: $69,569
Avg. need-based aid: $39,595
Avg. graduating debt: $25,881
Founded in 1783 by one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson College claims to be the first college chartered after the Treaty of Paris was signed and ended the American Revolution—in other words, the first college founded in the newly minted United States.
Today, Dickinson ranks number 32 on our list of best liberal arts colleges, thanks to a bright student body (more than 80% of students scored above 600 on the math and reading SATs) and generous financial aid. Plus, Dickinson retains 90% of its freshmen, and 80% graduate in just four years.
Besides its well-rounded course catalog and historic campus, the college is also known for its high-profile partnerships with other schools, including a law school affiliation with Penn State and a joint master’s program with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Location: Northfield, Minn.
Rank: #20 (#13 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,078
Four-year grad. rate: 89%
Total annual cost: $69,697
Avg. need-based aid: $40,675
Avg. graduating debt: $21,035
Labeled the “Harvard of the Midwest” by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Carleton College makes up for Minnesota winters with a rich history, top-rated education and robust extracurriculars. It ranks number 13 on our list of best value liberal arts colleges—in no small part because 89% of students graduate in four years.
Carleton’s student body has a reputation for eccentricity. Campus traditions include an annual softball game with as many innings as years since the college was founded (with administration-provided beer). Just don’t forget your down jacket.
Location: St. Paul, Minn.
Rank: #49 (#28 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,174
Four-year grad. rate: 85%
Total annual cost: $67,668
Avg. need-based aid: $40,870
Avg. graduating debt: $24,880
If you’re looking for a small-but-mighty undergraduate college, this Minnesota liberal arts school punches far above its weight. Founded in 1874 in St. Paul—the state’s capital and one half of the Twin Cities—has produced 45 Fulbright scholars in the past 10 years (including seven in 2018). If community service is important to you, the school offers ample opportunity: 98% of the student body becomes involved in some sort of community service during their four years at Macalester. “Mac,” as it’s known among students, alumni and faculty, also has a history of being ahead of its time: In 2007, it was awarded the title of most LGBT-friendly college in the United States by the Princeton Review.
Location: Wheaton, Ill.
Rank: #45 (#25 in liberal arts colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,391
Total annual cost: $47,400
Avg. need-based aid: $21,171
Avg. graduating debt: $27,543
Founded just before the start of the American Civil War, Wheaton wasted no time making its mark on history: The fledgling college just outside Chicago was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Historical documents from the time recall a town so absolute in its abolitionism that hundreds of residents could recall speaking to fugitive slaves on their way north.
Today, the school—which refers to itself as “distinctively Christian” and whose motto is “For Christ and His Kingdom”—earns high marks for its robust liberal arts catalog and affordability. With a student-faculty ratio of 11:1, you can expect close relationships with professors who push you to excel. It doesn’t hurt that the school is just an hour-long train ride from Chicago and the city’s world-class urban amenities.
Location: Sewanee, Tenn.
Rank: #127 (#65 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,702
Four-year grad. rate: 73%
Total annual cost: $59,200
Avg. need-based aid: $28,369
Avg. graduating debt: $26,772
If you want to break up your studies with time outdoors, put Sewanee on your list of colleges to consider. This school’s campus sits on 13,000 acres of the Tennessee River Valley in the southern region of the Appalachian Mountains. Plus, Sewanee says it’s a hot spot for students planning to pick up advanced degrees after they graduate: 95% of grads who go on to apply to law school are accepted, as are 85% of medical school applicants.
The university also has deep ties to Southern culture and tradition: It’s not uncommon for men to wear a suit jacket and tie to class all year long, and women are expected to wear slacks and “a nice top.” (“After all,” one college pamphlet asks, “you wouldn’t go to work in your pajamas, now would you?”) What most schools would call their campus, Sewanee students call their “Domain.” It may sound odd, but for plenty of others, it’s home. Loyalty for the university runs deep: The school retains an average of 88% of its freshmen.
Courtesy of Muhlenberg College
Location: Allentown, Pa.
Rank: #94 (#52 in liberal arts)
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,367
Total annual cost: $65,755
Avg. need-based aid: $32,257
Avg. graduating debt: $32,241
Muhlenberg College is just one liberal arts school in a state that seems to be littered with them. But with a strong course catalog and affordable tuition, the school has distinguished itself among many that fit its profile. The college also earns high marks for being a historic leader in financial aid transparency. Almost two decades ago, the school announced that it would use “preferential packaging” to administer aid. That means the school gives the largest aid packages to the students that it wants most to enroll. That might be a hard message for students who don’t receive much aid, but it’s a bonus for those who do.
Location: Binghamton, N.Y.
Rank: #69 (#14 in public schools)
Undergraduate enrollment: 13,708
Total annual cost: $42,702 out-of-state, $25,862 in-state
Avg. need-based aid: $9,356
Avg. graduating debt: $27,022
Binghamton University offers strong academics at a reasonable price. How reasonable? If you’re a New York resident with a household income below $125,000, you may receive reduced or free tuition under the Excelsior Scholarship program. In addition to abundant financial aid, this upstate New York school offers comprehensive four-year programs. Sports fans can root for the Division I Binghamton Bearcats or check out the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, a AA minor-league team for the New York Mets, located just a few minutes from campus.