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Published: Jun 12, 2024 8 min read
Photo-illustration of a notebook page with doodles, stickers, and a college campus photo.
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Americans are souring on the idea of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a semester to earn a bachelor’s degree, if you’re to believe recent surveys.

Less than half of Americans think a college degree is worth the cost, a record low, one poll found last March. In a more recent survey, fewer than one in five Americans say a degree is worth it if it comes with debt.

And yet, economists have found time and again that a college degree does pay off. It doesn’t even take long for the income boost to take effect: One recent study found that within a year of leaving school, a bachelor’s degree results in an average 25% wage premium.

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The challenge for families is finding a college that is worth the cost — an especially tough endeavor when pricing isn’t transparent, national on-time graduation rates sit around 50% and student debt haunts some grads for decades.

This is where Money’s annual Best Colleges analysis can help. Now in its 10th edition, our list highlights schools where students are more likely to graduate with manageable debt and land good-paying jobs.

There are 745 colleges that made the cut for the 2024-2025 list. For the second year in a row, we’ve grouped colleges into star ratings to help families judge a college’s relative performance without getting distracted by its precise placement on a numbered list.

What makes a ‘Best College’?

One of the fundamental reasons for our shift to a rating system is that while there are differences in the quality and outcomes of different colleges, numerical rankings overstate that difference.

The reality is there are many outstanding colleges that are worth students’ time and money, and they vary in size, mission, location and more. Our ratings score colleges on 25 different data points, but the ones that carry the most weight — and therefore most determine how a school performs — can be narrowed down to three main factors: what percentage of students at this college are graduating, how much a degree is likely to cost and what sort of earnings graduates can expect. (See full breakdown of our methodology.)

Our list highlights standout schools that may be new to you, but have long been known as gems in the higher education world, such as Kentucky’s Berea College (5 stars). A perennial high scorer in Money’s analysis, Berea was founded in 1855 with a mission of providing an accessible (read: affordable) education to students of all races. Today, the average household income of a student on campus is less than $32,000, and most are the first in their family to go to college. The school doesn’t charge tuition, and all students get a job on campus to help cover living expenses.

Olive Burd / Money

About 400 miles north, in Michigan, is another gem in the 1,200-student Kalamazoo College (4 stars). Recognized nearly 30 years ago in the popular Colleges That Change Lives book, Kalamazoo is known for its K-Plan, which augments a traditional liberal arts curriculum with experiential learning through research, study abroad, internships, and community service and civic projects. Nearly every student gets a grant to attend, with the average need-based financial aid package topping $45,000 per year.

There are rising stars on our Best Colleges list, too, like Florida International University (4.5 stars), which landed in the bottom third of our list when Money started ranking colleges. The Miami public university, with 45,000 undergraduates, began climbing about five years ago, after Money added a measure of socioeconomic mobility to our analysis. At the same time, the university had started using data analytics software to identify at-risk students and determine interventions that could help them stay on track. The result? The six-year graduation rate for freshmen climbed from 56% in 2018 to 67% in 2022, which Money’s analysis finds is about 13% higher than expected based on the students FIU enrolls. (Read more about how we measure a college’s “value add.”)

Now, FIU appears on multiple best colleges lists. It’s built a name for itself as an urban, innovative research powerhouse.

Other public colleges that have the space to serve a large number of moderate-income students (and serve them well) also tend to score high, including Baruch College in New York City, New Jersey Institute of Technology and California State University, Stanislaus — all of which have 5-star ratings this year.

Finally, with our methodology’s heavy emphasis on outcomes, many of our top scorers stand out because of impressive graduate salaries.

Take Bryant University (4.5 stars), for example. Students at the private school in Rhode Island are required to pair business degrees with arts and sciences minors, and vice versa. The interdisciplinary approach prepares them well for the workforce, school officials say. And salary data back that up. Money finds recent Bryant grads earn a premium over peers who graduated from similar schools. Plus, Bryant landed in the top 1% of all colleges on a nationwide report that measured return on investment over an entire career.

How to use Money’s Best Colleges star ratings

Like any college ranking, Money’s is best used to discover new schools, not to narrow down your list. While data can tell us a lot, there’s just as much that rankings don’t measure, like how much actual learning happens on campus and what specific skills students leave with; or whether students are happy and alumni are satisfied.

So it’s essential to do a more personal review to truly evaluate a school. Colleges on our list are grouped into one of seven buckets, ranging from 2 stars to 5 stars. A school with a lower star rating may ultimately be the best choice for you, based on how close it is to your home, what sort of financial aid it offers a student like you, whether it accepts your transfer credits or other fit factors.

Armed with the stars and statistics from our college profiles, talk to current students about their experiences on campus and what sort of support they’ve gotten. Ask about the types of internships current students have and where recent graduates are now working. Look into the financial aid policy, and then use the college’s net price calculator to figure out how much it will cost you individually.

We’ve all heard that college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. It sure would be nice if the cost of a degree winds up being the best money you ever spend.

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