Every year, MONEY ranks the best colleges for your money, finding the schools that add the most value for students’ tuition dollars. This year we interviewed recent graduates of four of the top schools on our list—asking them to tell us what worked for them, how they covered their costs, and what advice they’d pass along to future applicants. Get inspired by their stories, and check out MONEY’s college finder tool to find a few schools that are perfect for you.
1. Neeta Patel
Princeton University: MONEY’s No. 1 Best College Pick
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts in 2016.
Why That School? “I wanted a liberal arts school on the scale of Princeton—smaller and with a focus on undergraduates. And I got to participate in the Bridge Year program. Princeton fully funds a select number of incoming freshmen to defer their acceptances for one year and volunteer abroad. I spent nine months in Ghana.”
Funding: Mostly scholarships and student work.
Student Loans: $0
What I’m Doing Now: “I’m the Graphic Design Fellow at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West in Arizona.”
How It Paid Off: “Perhaps the pressure to do something more practical would have been much greater if I had to take out student loans. Studying liberal arts can feel a little bit riskier. But I loved my courses, and my department’s faculty was absolutely top. Plenty of people who graduated from my department are doing just fine.”
Advice: “I’ve talked to some people who wouldn’t even think of applying to an elite school, who say that even if they were admitted, there is no way they can afford an elite school. They are unaware of how generous the financial aid is at schools like Princeton. Don’t hesitate to apply if this is your goal.”
2. Carlos Sirotnikov
Baruch College: MONEY’s No. 2 Best College Pick
Degree: Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing Management in 2016.
Why That School? “I wanted to go to school in New York City, and it was important to me to find a college that offered a major that I was passionate about. I was accepted into CUNY’s Macaulay Honors program, which provided me with four years of free tuition. I didn’t want to be a burden on my family. And I didn’t want to owe student loans.”
Funding: Mostly scholarships and work.
Student Loans: $0
What I’m Doing Now: Brand Specialist at Amazon.com.
How It Paid Off: “In my marketing principles class, we read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. To this day it is one of the things I keep in the back of my mind. Also, one of the most important parts of Baruch is the other students. They study hard and come to school prepared to excel. It’s important to surround yourself with people like that. I didn’t realize until I arrived how much that would matter and what a positive impact it would have on me.”
Advice: “Keep an open mind toward schools that offer better costs, even if they may not be ‘elite.’ It’s how you mold your collegiate experience that determines success. I now have a career that I enjoy, and where I learn new things every day.”
3. Morya Breland
University of Washington: MONEY’s No. 13 Best College Pick
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Informatics in 2016.
Why That School? “I didn’t want to go to school in Seattle, which is my hometown. But faith is a big part of my life, and my pastor prophesied over my life and said, “You’re not done working in Washington.” Also, cost was an elephant in the room. I got a full-tuition scholarship for the first two years and lived at home those two years.”
Funding: Scholarships, work, savings, and student loans.
Student Loans: “$23,000, but I am making extra payments and am looking to pay them off by the end of next year.”
What I’m Doing Now: Support Engineer at Microsoft in Dallas.
How It Paid Off: “I was struggling in computer science, and my advisor said, ‘You should look into informatics,’ which is a major that asks the question: What can technology do for us? So I started taking the prerequisites and loved it. I gained more technology skills while I was also working on soft skills and studying how to make technology better for people. That has contributed to my job.”
Advice: “Find your community in college. Being involved in cheerleading and living in a Christian fraternity house helped me make friends at school and gave me people to study with.”
4. Alex Strubbe
University of Texas at Austin: MONEY’s No. 31 Best College Pick
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in American Studies in 2016.
Why That School? “I wanted to be pre-med, and UT had the best program of all the schools that I got into.”
Funding: “My parents had saved money in a prepaid 529, and I got scholarships and earned money.”
Student Loans: $0
What I’m Doing Now: Marketing Director at Personal Wine.
How It Paid Off: “The course that helped me the most, honestly, was on queer theory. It helped me come out when I was a junior. I was battling depression, and I was in an abusive relationship. I had gained about 85 pounds. But it helped me gain confidence, so I got out of the relationship. I lost all that weight in about 10 months and became a part-time fitness instructor. And I gained confidence that helps me in my job.”
Advice: “I’m hiring now and care more about job experience than your grades. Of course, I have a soft spot for University of Texas alumni, partly because I think if you go to a big state school like UT, you have to fight tooth and nail to stand out.”
See MONEY’s full rankings of the 711 best-value colleges here.