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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Sabrina Medler, Intern
| July 25, 2019
Student debt has become a hot political issue, largely because there's so much of it. Student loans now make up the largest sector of non-housing debt in the U.S. In 2017, the average student borrower at a four-year private college graduated with $32,600 in debt, and those attending public colleges left with an average debt of $26,900. But some schools do a better job of keeping debt in check than others. Of our best value colleges, these schools' graduates have the lowest average debt.
Location: Berea, Ky.
Average debt at graduation: $7,468
Kiplinger's combined rank: 61 (number 35 among liberal arts colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,670
Total annual cost: $8,054
Students who borrow: 25%
For students looking for a college that's light on the wallet, look no further than Berea College. At Berea, no student pays tuition. Instead, the small liberal arts school provides a scholarship of more than $100,000 to cover the four-year program. That being said, the school is targeted toward students with demonstrated financial need—the mean family income of first-year students is less than $30,000.
Students can also receive assistance with the cost of housing, living expenses and food based on economic need. Loans are offered as a last resort to cover any additional expenses. As a result, graduates' debt is miniscule compared with that of Berea students' peers; only one-fourth end up borrowing at all. In exchange for a tuition-free education, Berea College requires students to work a minimum of 10 hours per week at a job that assists with the operation of the school. With a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio, Berea is a great place to learn for less.
Location: Talladega, Ala.
Average debt at graduation: $7,991
Kiplinger's combined rank: 237 (number 100 among liberal arts colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 782
Total annual cost: $23,745
Students who borrow: 73%
As Alabama's oldest private historically black liberal arts college, Talladega College comes in second place for graduates with the lowest average debt. Part of this ranking stems from the initial price tag: Talladega's sticker price before aid is among the 10 lowest for all of our schools. Beyond the sticker price, Talladega's average need-based aid package is $13,752, which knocks off more than half the cost. About three-fourths of students borrow, with the school able to meet 67% of need.
With a 16-to-1 student-faculty ratio and a strong foundation in the liberal arts, Talladega College ensures that students get plenty of personalized attention, regardless of which of the 17 majors they choose to study. Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Talladega is a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. One of its core values is putting students first, and one way it accomplishes that goal is by allowing its students to graduate with minimal debt.
Location: Princeton, N.J.
Average debt at graduation: $9,005
Kiplinger's combined rank: 5 (number 2 among private universities)
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,394
Total annual cost: $63,800
Students who borrow: 17%
With a sticker price so high, it may seem hard to believe that Princeton could crack our top 10. However, Princeton, like several other elite private schools, has a stellar financial aid program that meets 100% of demonstrated financial need, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Its average need-based award, $51,365, is the fifth highest of all of our best value colleges. In addition, all of the aid given to students is on a no-loan basis, which means loans are excluded from financial aid awards. Even families that make more than $200,000 can qualify for need-based aid from Princeton in some circumstances.
Beyond its surprising affordability, Princeton offers one of the highest-quality educations on our list. Its overall Kiplinger ranking is in the top 5, and its acceptance rate is 6%, making it highly selective. In addition, the five-to-one student-faculty ratio combined with the 300 student organizations, 37 academic departments and a post-graduation salary estimate of $74,700 (the 24th highest on our entire list of best value colleges) make for a real college bargain.
Location: New York, N.Y.
Average debt at graduation: $12,117
Kiplinger's combined rank: 193 (number 49 among public colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 15,253
Total annual cost: $35,074 ($23,804 in-state)
Students who borrow: 14%
With the New York hubs of Gramercy Park, Union Square and the Flatiron District just blocks away, students have an entire city to explore in their free time at Baruch College. Though many students commute, there's also a residence hall located on the Upper East Side. With majors in the Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, Marxe School of Public & International Affairs and the Zicklin School of Business, students are sure to have a variety of options.
Last year, Baruch College was at the top of our list for low-debt colleges, but the school fell a few places as average student debt among students who borrowed increased by more than $4,000. Still, only 14% of students had to take out loans at all—the lowest ratio of any school on this list. Unlike other universities on this list that offer only need-based aid, Baruch offers merit scholarships and grants. The average merit-based aid package is $5,058, while average need-based aid is $6,574, making the average net cost of attending closer to $30,000 for out-of-state students who receive financial aid and less than $20,000 for in-state students who receive aid.
Location: New Haven, Conn.
Average debt at graduation: $13,050
Kiplinger's combined rank: 4 (number 1 among private universities)
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,746
Total annual cost: $70,570
Students who borrow: 16%
Yale resembles many of its Ivy League partners in that it offers no-loan financial aid packages that cover 100% of students financial need. With the second-highest average aid package of any school on the list (more than $50,000), the tuition winds up being affordable for the 7% of applicants who are admitted.
These students are the cream of the crop: 88% have an SAT reading score of 700 or higher, and 86% have SAT math scores of 700 or higher. When students graduate, their salary prospects are promising. The average student makes $83,200 after graduation—one of the highest salaries of all schools on our combined best values list.
Location: Provo, Utah
Average debt at graduation: $14,998
Kiplinger's combined rank: 148
Undergraduate enrollment: 31,233
Total annual cost: $19,716 for non-Mormons ($14,096 for Mormons)
Students who borrow: 26%
You don't have to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to attend this private religious school, but Mormon-identifying students pay much less. Tuition for Mormon students is $5,620, compared with $11,240 for non-Mormon students. Add the cost of room and board and additional expenses and you're looking at a sticker price less of than $20,000 no matter what your faith.
BYU has a strong academic focus. Roughly half incoming freshmen earned an ACT score of at least a 30, and the school offers 179 undergraduate majors. Post-graduation salaries are estimated at about $60,000.
Location: Haverford, Pa.
Average debt at graduation: $15,000
Kiplinger's combined rank: 9 (number 5 for liberal arts colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,296
Total annual cost: $72,434
Students who borrow: 23%
Although the sticker price of this northeastern liberal arts school is sky high—it's the 12th-most-expensive college on our combined list—its financial aid awards are also some of the most generous. The average need-based aid package is $48,895, and the school meets 100% of students' demonstrated financial need.
Haverford offers lots of options beyond its campus. Students can register for more than 2,000 courses across a consortium made up of Haverford, the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College and Swarthmore. Another standout feature of Haverford academics is that every student works on a senior thesis project by doing original research in partnership with faculty members. The school, located not far from Philadelphia, is home to a nationally recognized arboretum and a 3.5-acre duck pond.
Location: New York, N.Y.
Average debt at graduation: $15,096
Kiplinger's combined rank: 275 (number 58 for public colleges)
Undergraduate enrollment: 17,212
Total annual cost : $31,146 ($19,876 in-state)
Students who borrow: 15%
At Hunter College, students can explore all that New York City has to offer from its campus located on the Upper East Side. And what's better than going to college in the Big Apple? Graduating without a lot of student debt, of course. Close to 75% of students graduate debt-free.
The $31,146 sticker price reflects out-of-state tuition combined with room and board, textbooks and other expenses, although most students come from New York and pay the much lower in-state tuition of $6,730. The average need-based financial aid package is $7,950.
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
Average debt at graduation: $15,114
Kiplinger's combined rank: 12
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,766
Total annual cost: $68,580
Students who borrow: 20%
You've no doubt heard about this school near Boston that only accepts the best and the brightest. The Ivy League giant has a 5% admittance rate, accepting mainly students with 700+ SAT reading and math scores and 30+ ACT scores. Harvard's faculty is outstanding as well—it hosts about 50 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state and 50 Pulitzer Prize winners.
But what you may not know is that Harvard has one of the most generous financial aid packages on our combined best values list. The average cost after need-based aid is $17,881—not bad for a Harvard degree. And in most cases, the degree pays for itself. Students who graduate Harvard start with an average salary of $89,700, the fourth-highest salary of schools on our combined list.
Location: Bellingham, Wash.
Average debt at graduation: $15,663
Kiplinger's combined rank: 279 (number 63 for public universities)
Undergraduate enrollment: 14,968
Total annual cost: $35,934 ($20,522 in state)
Students who borrow: 51%
With small class sizes but more than 175 majors to choose from, Western Washington gives students the best of both worlds. Located between the San Juan Islands and the North Cascades, its many opportunities for hiking, skiing and kayaking are ideal for the outdoorsy type.
Though the sticker price is by no means low, it reflects the price of out-of-state tuition, which most students at Western don't pay. In-state tuition is $7,038, and when you add $1,094 for required fees, $11,466 for room and board and $924 for textbooks, you’re looking at a four-year degree for around $20,000 a year. Even better, Western Washington meets 91% of needed aid, an extremely high rate for a public school.