10 Great Colleges Where Your Kid Can Graduate in 4 Years or Less
A strong four-year grad rate is perhaps the single best measure of a college's quality and affordability.
A strong four-year grad rate is perhaps the single best measure of a college's quality and affordability. Not only does it demonstrate a college's ability to provide the resources and support that students need to complete their coursework in four years, but it also means that students and parents are spared a fifth or sixth year of college costs. Students can start building a career and earning money instead of paying tuition and potentially racking up more debt.
Of the 300 public and private colleges on our best values list, these 10 schools post the highest four-year graduation rates. Sharing the top honor are Carleton College and Georgetown University, both of which have a graduation rate of 91%. By comparison, the national average for both public and private schools even after six years is only 59%, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Four private universities and six private liberal arts colleges make it into our top 10 list. (The University of Virginia tops all public schools, with a graduation rate of 87.4%—about two percentage points lower than the 10th school on our list, Harvey Mudd College.) Not surprisingly, these 10 schools have consistently ranked high on our best-value list, thanks in part for their high freshmen-retention rates (the lowest rate in our top 10 is 94%), low student-faculty ratios (ranging from 6 to 1 to 11 to 1) and small classes—all indicators of a supportive academic environment. For most of our top 10 schools, a high percentage of students also live on campus, forging a close-knit community where students can interact with their peers and professors. Take a look.
T-1. Carleton College
- Location: Northfield, Minn.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,057
- Average graduating debt: $18,302
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #30
- Total annual cost: $62,846
- Average need-based aid: $34,050
- SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best College Values, 2016
4-year grad rate: 91%
Founded in 1866, Carleton College is located in the historic river town of Northfield (pop. 20,000), a 45-minute drive from St. Paul and Minneapolis. Despite its small campus and small-town location, Carleton aims for its "Carls" to become well-rounded global citizens. The school's graduation requirements include proficiency in at least one foreign language, and students must take at least one class in international studies.
As with the other nine schools on our list, Carleton has a low student-faculty ratio (nine to one) and a high freshmen-retention rate (97%). The average class size is 18, and all classes are taught by faculty members rather than teaching assistants. The school offers 37 majors, and the academic year is broken into trimesters: Students take three classes during a ten-week term in the fall, winter and spring, which adds up to 12 classes each year, providing students with more opportunities to explore their interests and change majors if they choose. The school offers ample academic and financial support to both students and faculty, including a faculty-student scholarship that supports research collaborations between students and their professors.
T-1. Georgetown University
- Location: Washington, D.C.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 7,595
- Average graduating debt: $22,464
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #48
- Total annual cost: $64,385
- Average need-based aid: $36,878
4-year grad rate: 91%
At the nation's oldest Catholic and Jesuit university (founded in 1789), Jesuit ideals and traditions are central to the school's academic life. Georgetown seeks to educate its students through exposure to various faiths, cultures and beliefs. The school has more than 2,000 international students from more than 120 countries. About half of its undergraduates study abroad. The global focus is a reflection of Georgetown's stated mission to "prepare the next generation of global citizens to lead and make a difference in the world."
Georgetown University offers rigorous academic programs and numerous research opportunities (funding for research in 2014 totaled more than $172.7 million). On campus, students can chose among more than 200 social, cultural, academic and political clubs and activities. Off campus, they have access to a broad range of internship and research possibilities in the nation's capital. Georgetown students can also take advantage of the D.C. location to explore museums, attend art performances and visit monuments and other landmarks.
3. University of Notre Dame
- Location: Notre Dame, Ind.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 8,448
- Average graduating debt: $26,674
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #47
- Total annual cost: $65,825
- Average need-based aid: $33,025
- SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best Colleges With the Lowest Average Graduating Debt
4-year grad rate: 90.3%
The University of Notre Dame attracts top students—more than 90% of its incoming freshmen scored 30 or higher on the ACT, and 76% of its students ranked in the top 5% of their high school classes. Notre Dame attributes its 98% freshmen-retention rate largely to its unique First Year of Studies program. The program is designed to build a broad intellectual foundation for students' academic work and career pursuits. The specialized curriculum includes courses in writing and rhetoric, mathematics, and science or a foreign language.
Notre Dame's campus is residential: About four out of five undergraduates live in its 29 residential halls. The school has more than 430 clubs and organizations, but no fraternities or sororities.
4. Princeton University
- Location: Princeton, N.J.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 5,391
- Average graduating debt: $6,600
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #2
- Total annual cost: $58,660
- Average need-based aid: $42,097
4-year grad rate: 90.2%
Princeton University posts the most competitive admit rate among the 10 schools on our list: Only one out of 14 applicants is accepted. Few of those who enroll leave after the first year, but most leave in four years—on graduation day. Princeton has a low student-faculty ratio (six to one, the lowest among our top 10), which ensures plenty of face time between students and faculty members. The nation's fourth oldest school is in a park-like setting of about 500 acres; 98% of undergraduates live on campus.
Princeton's students not only graduate on time but also with low student debt.
5. Davidson College
- Location: Davidson, N.C.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,770
- Average graduating debt: $22,000
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #4
- Total annual cost: $61,119
- Average need-based aid: $37,170
- SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best Values in Public Colleges, 2016
4-year grad rate: 90.2%
Davidson's historic campus is an appealing blend of century-old trees, traditional brick buildings and state-of-the-art facilities. More than 95% of its students live on campus. Students can choose among more than 850 courses, 200 organizations and various service programs. The college values civic engagement and offers fellowships to fund many community-service programs. More than 80% of Davidson's students participate in community services, and about four out of five of them study, travel and work abroad. Outdoorsy students have access to a variety of activities, including whitewater rafting, rock climbing and mountain biking.
Through the Davidson Trust, the college was the first liberal arts school to substitute grants for loans in its financial aid packages. Davidson offers need-blind admission, and all financial need is met with grants and student work-study. Seven out of 10 students at Davidson graduate without debt.
6. Washington University in St. Louis
- Location: St. Louis, Mo.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 7,401
- Average graduating debt: $23,858
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #58
- Total annual cost: $64,350
- Average need-based aid: $35,555
4-year grad rate: 90.2%
Founded in 1853, Washington University in St. Louis has long been known as a research institution. Beginning with Arthur Compton, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1927 (for his discovery of the Compton Effect), a total of 23 scholars associated with the university have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, in areas such as economic science, chemistry, medicine and physiology. The university spent more than $450 million on research in the academic year that ended in June 2015; it has 3,000 research projects under way each year. The university also has research offices that promote and facilitate student research in areas including arts and sciences, business, architecture, design, and medicine.
With a student body of 7,400, Wash-U manages to maintain a student-faculty ratio of eight to one. Students have access to more than 90 programs and almost 1,500 courses. Once they graduate, they also have plenty of local job opportunities. One-fourth of the university's alumni live and work in the St. Louis area. Employing about 13,000 people in 2013, Washington University is one of St. Louis's largest employers. The university plays an integral part of the development of the St. Louis region.
7. Pomona College
- Location: Claremont, Calif.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,650
- Average graduating debt: $16,273
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #8
- Total annual cost: $63,670
- Average need-based aid: $41,443
- SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career
4-year grad rate: 90.1%
Of the schools in our top 10, Pomona arguably has the happiest freshmen. Nearly 99% of them return to campus after freshmen year. It's easy to see why: Pomona combines the benefits of a small liberal arts college with the resources of a university. It is the founding member of the Claremont Colleges, which means the school’s 1,650 students have access to 2,500 courses and resources offered by six other colleges, including a library with 2 million volumes; a wide range of guest lectures, art performances and exhibitions; and an array of student clubs and activities. At Pomona, class size averages 15, and professors teach every class.
Pomona places a strong emphasis on undergraduate research. More than half of its students conduct research with faculty, and more than 200 students participate in research projects each summer. A total of 94% of students live on campus all four years, and many professors live within five miles of campus.
As the seven adjoining colleges grew, Claremont became a vibrant college town full of "trees and PhDs." Students can easily bump into each other and their professors at local clubs, speakers' events and the Honnold-Mudd Library, which is shared by all seven members of the Claremont College consortium.
Claremont, Calif., is an hour’s drive from Los Angeles and the mountains, desert and beaches. The location affords countless opportunities for field study, research and internships. Students can take the local commuter train or ZipCar to examine the work of Chicano muralists in L.A., climb local mountains to study deposits of volcanic rock, and learn about satellite imaging at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena.
8. College of the Holy Cross
- Location: Worcester, Mass.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,937
- Average graduating debt: $28,354
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #49
- Total annual cost: $60,624
- Average need-based aid: $32,207
4-year grad rate: 90.1%
Founded in 1843, the College of the Holy Cross champions "the education of the whole person," including the intellectual, social and spiritual facets of each individual. The Jesuit institution, located in Worcester, Mass., welcomes students of all faiths. Only 38 miles away from Boston and 43 miles from Providence, Worcester is the second largest city of New England. Over 90% of the school's 3,000 students live on campus.
All first-year students at Holy Cross are required to participate in the yearlong Montserrat program. During the program, students attend seminars in small classes and engage in activities such as visiting museums, hiking mountains, attending musical or theatrical performances, listening to poetry readings, and compiling inventories of plant species in local parks. The program is meant to help students build a solid foundation and develop close relationships with their peers and teachers. At Holy Cross, all courses are taught by faculty members (teaching assistants do not teach classes).
9. Colgate University
- Location: Hamilton, N.Y.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 2,875
- Average graduating debt: $21,405
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #19
- Total annual cost: $63,580
- Average need-based aid: $41,428
- SEE ALSO: SLIDE SHOW: 10 Worst College Majors for Your Career
4-year grad rate: 89.7%
This liberal arts institution places a strong emphasis on faculty-student interaction and undergraduate research. The school was founded by 13 men who each offered $13 and 13 prayers in 1819, hence the "lucky 13"—a tradition of Colgate's to celebrate Friday the 13th. With an average class size of 17 and a nine-to-one student-faculty ratio, Colgate seeks to build a residential community in which students become thoughtful and critical thinkers.
Colgate students can choose among 54 majors and numerous undergraduate research opportunities. Every summer, about 200 students receive paid summer research fellowships. These fellowships allow students to work closely with faculty for eight to 10 weeks on projects of mutual interest.
10. Harvey Mudd College
- Location: Claremont, Calif.
- Undergraduate enrollment: 804
- Average graduating debt: $24,503
- Kiplinger's overall rank: #51
- Total annual cost: $68,055
- Average need-based aid: $35,637
4-year grad rate: 89.6%
Opened right before Sputnik I launched the Space Age in September 1957, Harvey Mudd College promises a rigorous education for the nation’s brightest students in science, engineering and math with a strong underpinning of humanities and social sciences. The college charges top dollar for its education—the total cost is more than $68,000 a year (need-based aid brings the cost for those who qualify to $32,418). But the high graduation rate means that nine out of 10 students are spared the expense of a fifth or even sixth year, saving students money on the back end.
Nearly all "Mudders" live on campus, a small community neighboring Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Like students at Pomona, Mudders have access to a large pool of resources shared by the Claremont Colleges. Students are strongly encouraged to initiate original projects and collaborate with faculty on research during the academic year and in the summer through the school’s summer research program. Harvey Mudd's Clinic program also allows students to team up and solve problems posed by sponsoring industry organizations, government agencies and nonprofit groups.