Five years ago, a group of faculty members at the University of California-Irvine decided to “out” themselves. At the large research university, where more than half of students are the first in their families to go to college, these faculty would proudly say: Us, too.
It was a simple gesture. But it carried a powerful message for those 14,000 undergrads at Irvine.
“It gives them role models, so they don’t suffer from imposter syndrome,” says Chancellor Howard Gillman, himself once a first-generation college student. “They know they belong here.”
That grassroots faculty effort grew into a comprehensive outreach and support program and became a model for all 10 campuses in the University of California system. Today, faculty wear T-shirts and buttons in the first weeks of fall to “out” themselves.
It’s that long-established culture of support that helps UC-Irvine place at the top of MONEY’s 2019 Best Colleges rankings. Pursuing a college degree is one of the most expensive decisions you can make—and with ever-rising prices, families from every background worry they’ll get it wrong. That’s where MONEY’s rankings can help. For our annual analysis, we considered more than 19,000 data points including graduation rates, tuition fees, family borrowing, and alumni salaries to identify the colleges that best combine quality and affordability.
The result is a mix of 744 colleges that highlights campuses like No. 13 California State University-Long Beach, where incoming students report average SAT scores of about 1100 out of 1600, alongside more selective schools like No. 14 Harvard University, where nearly a quarter of students submitted perfect SAT scores. Recent graduates of both colleges report higher-than-expected salaries, according to MONEY’s calculations. (See a breakdown of the all data we use here.)
UC-Irvine might seem like a surprising No. 1, but the university—which last fall received more freshman applications than all but two colleges in the country—is no stranger to accolades. In 2015, the New York Times called it part of “California’s Upward-Mobility Machine,” and it has consistently scored well in MONEY’s analysis, placing in the top 20 for the past five years.
What makes it so good? A strong graduation rate and affordable tuition fees for Californians. In the period we analyzed, UCI graduated more Pell Grant recipients—students who largely come from lower-income backgrounds—than any other college. It also nets positive scores across all five of MONEY’s “value-add” metrics, which compare outcomes on graduation, student borrowing, and alumni wages with how we’d predict colleges to perform based on the students they enroll. MONEY estimates UCI’s graduation rate is 30% higher than colleges that serve similar students.
Even among the thousands of new faces at summer orientation four years ago, Stephanie Munoz, felt welcomed right away. That’s one of her favorite things about attending UC-Irvine.
“It’s not a competitive environment,” she says. “Everybody is trying to help each other.” She’ll graduate later this year with a degree in social policy and public service and about $15,000 in loans—about half the national average.
Of course, UCI, or any of the other colleges that top MONEY’s list, may not be the “best” for you, financially or academically. But each of the colleges that made the cut this year demonstrate some return for your investment, and they can guide you in your research. Here’s what the list tells us—and the steps you can take to find the college where you’ll be successful.
Prices Have Little Correlation With Quality
Paying for college is a challenge for families because tuition has risen faster than inflation every year for the past decade. But it’s also stressful because those prices are so hard to understand.
The University of Chicago (No. 77), for example, made news this year when its yearly price tag passed the $80,000 mark. But more than 60% of students get a grant to lower that price. Students from families earning up to $110,000 pay less than a quarter of it.
What’s more, MONEY rankings show that a high sticker price is not necessarily an indicator of high quality, nor does a low price guarantee you’re getting a good bargain.
Take Rollins College (No. 679) as an example. MONEY estimates the private liberal arts college in Florida will cost students an average $190,000 to earn a degree. While 75% of them graduate, less than six in 10 have made progress paying back their loans five years after college, and alumni report average salaries of about $46,000—11% lower than those of similar colleges.
Contrast that with Florida State University (No. 102), where in-state students will pay less than half the price of Rollins but report similar outcomes. About 80% of students graduate, and FSU has a slightly greater share of alumni working and paying down debt, according to federal College Scorecard data.
Yet it’s also a mistake to assume public colleges are always the best value. Even with New York state’s comparatively affordable higher education system, Reed Podell, whose daughter is studying education at St. John’s University’s Staten Island campus, found that $13,000 in scholarships combined with living at home made the nearby private university more affordable than any of the state schools they were looking at. Thanks to years of regular contributions into a 529 college savings plan, he expects to pay for her undergraduate degree and possibly a year of graduate school.
“I don’t want her to feel she has to turn down the dream job because it’s not enough to cover her debt,” he says.
Here’s your homework: Use colleges’ net price calculators to get a personalized cost of attendance estimate before you rule out a school based on price. If you’re a parent, communicate early and often with your student about whether you can contribute financially and how much your student will be expected to cover. “That’s not a conversation you want to have in the spring of senior year,” says Ian Fisher, an admissions consultant with College Coach, an educational advising service.
It’s Not About Getting In. It’s About Getting Out
A few decades ago, college officials used to practically brag about how few students reached graduation, using it as a way to demonstrate how rigorous courses were.
Not today. Attention from researchers and policy makers has put a harsh spotlight on the number of students who fail to graduate—about one-third of students at four-year colleges nationwide. While nearly 9 in 10 freshmen think they’ll graduate in four years, only 41% of students at public colleges do so, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
That extra time translates to real dollars: In 2019, students at MONEY’s ranked colleges will owe an average $900 per credit hour, or nearly $3,000 for a typical course. A full extra year can reduce the payoff of a bachelor’s degree by as much as 20%, according to researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s why MONEY factors the average time it takes students to complete into our internal estimates of degree prices. Students at our ranked colleges finish at a faster rate than the national average: 4.5 years at public colleges and 4.2 at privates.
Colleges have reacted to the national focus on completion rates by investing in advanced data systems to better track their students and using that information to remove barriers that keep them from completing.
At the University of Texas at Austin (No. 28) officials have worked to make the large 50,000-student campus feel like a more intimate community. Every freshman is placed in a first-year interest group of 20 students to help them transition to campus, for example, and a new Graduation Help Desk serves as a central intake office for questions related to staying on track for an on-time graduation. The university has paired these programs with targeted financial aid, such as completion grants for students who are within a year of graduating and need financial support to finish. In the past six years, the university’s four-year graduation rate has climbed from 52% to 70%.
“College is the first time they’re setting their own schedules and managing their academic schedules,” says Rachelle Hernandez, senior vice provost for enrollment management at UT-Austin. Students sometimes struggle to navigate that, and they’re often hesitant to ask for help.
The reticence to ask for help is especially common among first-generation students, says Anita Casavantes-Bradford, a professor of history and Chicano studies at UCI who founded the university’s First Generation Faculty program. She likens coming to a college campus as a first-generation students to moving to a foreign country. It’s normal to need others who are fluent in the language and cultural norms to guide you.
Here’s your homework: Once you’re on campus, remember that even though taking 12 credits per semester will qualify you as a full-time student, you’ll need to take 15 credits a semester or enroll during the summers to earn the 120 credits required for a bachelor’s degree on time. Less than half of freshmen at four-year colleges do so in their first year, according to the advocacy group Complete College America.
Data Can Tell You A Lot. But Not Everything
There’s plenty we don’t know—or can’t accurately measure—about how colleges affect the lives of their students. But families today have access to more information about outcomes than ever before to help guide their decision.
“There are tools out there that none of us even dreamed of two decades ago,” says Tod Massa, director of policy analytics at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
At the national level, the Education Department plans to update its tool, the College Scorecard, with the average earnings and debt in each academic program.
Some states, such as Colorado, Florida, Texas, and Virginia, are well ahead of the federal government. With Florida’s Launch My Career, you can compare projected future earnings to the cost of academic programs at the state’s public colleges. Virginia’s budget tool will let you calculate monthly debt payments alongside cost-of-living estimates in every county in the state.
These data can help you make a more informed decision about the risks and rewards of going to college, Massa says. But they have limitations. Aside from Texas’s SeekUT database, states only have wage data for graduates of public colleges who stay in-state. And most of the tools don’t have the nuance to factor in cost of living. That’s a problem, Massa says, because where graduates live is one of the biggest drivers of wage differences.
To get a fuller picture, you should pair hard numbers with a review of elements that are tough to capture with statistics, like how closely students interact with faculty and how the college promotes learning outside classrooms.
Surveys of recent graduates find that students who participate in a variety of experiential learning opportunities in college, such as internships, volunteer work, or undergraduate research, are more likely to get hired and to be confident in their jobs.
That’s because those experiences help students build practical skills needed to succeed in the workplace, says Ron Albertson, career services director at St. Lawrence University (No. 106). They demonstrate to employers that in addition to the knowledge you’ve gained in the classroom, you have experience working on a team and meeting deadlines.
At St. Lawrence, leaders have prioritized fundraising to ensure more students are able to afford such opportunities. This past summer, the university awarded $172,400 in scholarships for internships, up from $38,000 a decade ago.
Cassandra Cheung, who graduated from UC-Irvine in June with a degree in business economics, balanced her classes with volunteering as an Alternative Break student leader, serving as a peer mentor for incoming first-generation students, and doing research for the Division of Undergraduate Education. Her secret for finding all those positions? Simply asking.
“The worst they can say is no,” she says, adding that she recommends students new to campus be proactive in reaching out to professors in the fields they’re interested in. “Even if they don’t have anything for you, they may know someone who does.”
Here’s your homework: There are no national job placement statistics, so you’ll generally have to rely on data that colleges collect. To get an idea how reliable they are, Albertson recommends asking the career services office how numbers on job or grad school placements are collected and how many graduates are captured.
Sharp increases in the cost of college have made whether and where to go a riskier decision than it once was. Yet families still consider it a fundamental part of middle-class life, says Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist whose upcoming book Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost explores how rising college costs have affected family life. And extensive research shows that college is still an investment that typically pays off.
That doesn’t mean choosing a college or finding a path you can afford will be easy. Families “reach into every possible pocket to make this work,” Zaloom says.
MONEY’s rankings are designed to maximize your chances of making that investment pay off.