America's best bang for the buck colleges 2016: our exclusive list of schools that help non-wealthy students attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.

AuthorKelchen, Robert

For the past four years, we've ranked America's colleges and universities based on their "Bang for the Buck"--that is, the extent to which they charge students who aren't rich a reasonable price for quality education that will advance them in their careers. Last fall, the Obama administration made our job a lot easier. It released a new data set, the "College Scorecard," that shows, for the first time, how much students earn ten years after enrolling at a given college and whether they're paying down at least some of the loan principal. It also reveals the percent of first-generation students each college enrolls, a key measure of its commitment to opportunity. We incorporated all this new data, and more, into our 2016 Best Bang for the Buck rankings, which are broken down by region and can be found starting on page 38. (We used the same data and methodology to create the social mobility portion of the main rankings, which begin on page 80; the methodology is explained beginning on page 114.)

The top Best Bang for the Buck colleges in each of our five regions reflect a diverse group of institutions. Harvard University (tops in the Northeast) does a relatively good job for an elite college in enrolling lower-income and first-generation students, and getting into Harvard is generally a ticket to economic success. Berea College (South) and College of the Ozarks (Midwest) are familiar to many in the higher education world for being tuition-free colleges that primarily serve low-income students. Cal State-Bakersfield is best in the West for serving large numbers of modest-income and first-generation students at a low price, and setting them up to earn, ten years after enrolling, $49,800 a year, over $10,000 more than do former students from other colleges who have similar backgrounds. The University of Mount Olive in North Carolina heads our Southeast list on the strength of a low net price of attendance for families making less than $75,000 per year and outperforming its expected values for graduation rates, earnings, and loan repayment.

Across the regions, a few trends stand out. Some elite private colleges (such as Penn, Princeton, Duke, and Stanford) make the top twenty in their regions, but the lists are dominated by lesser-known private colleges and non-flagship public colleges. For example, CUNY...

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