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Published: Nov 18, 2015 6 min read
Baruch College of the City University of New York
Baruch College of the City University of New York is on our affordable list.
Leslie Barbaro

Nearly every college claims to be "affordable," but which ones really are?

A new benchmark indicates that comparatively few good colleges are fully affordable for the approximately 15 million families earning less than about $48,000. That group makes up more than one-third of all families with children under the age of 18.

The Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving higher education access and success, recently proposed that a college be called "affordable" if the cost of a bachelor's degree for a student is no more than the total of:

  • 10% of the family's discretionary income over 10 years
  • The amount a student can earn working 10 hours a week during the school year.

For families who don't have much discretionary income, that means a college is "affordable" only if it charges no more per year than a student can earn working part-time, which Lumina estimates at $3,625 a year.

Money tested this new definition of affordability against the net prices that colleges report to the government for different income groups.

Using this measure, we found only 40 "affordable" colleges for low-income students that met our standard for acceptable graduation rates (either significantly above what would be expected for their student population or at least the median for their type of school). All of the colleges on this list appear to provide enough scholarships so that a typical low-income student who works part-time should be able to graduate debt-free.

We also found dozens of top-notch colleges, including the University of Michigan, Yale, and Georgia Tech that were just a few hundred dollars above this threshold. This list highlights only the 40 most affordable ones.

To measure affordability, we looked only at the net prices colleges charged families earning less than $48,000, per year, in part because those numbers are the most reliable. We assumed that families earning less than $48,000 a year had no discretionary income, and thus could not contribute any savings to their child's college costs.

The U.S. Department of Education's financial aid formula does assume that many families earning more than about $30,000 can contribute to their children's college costs. But the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators says that for many families, that formula is unrealistic. The federal formula "no longer produces a reasonable estimate of what many families can be expected to contribute," says NASFAA senior policy analyst Karen McCarthy.

Instead, other analysts say that families earning less than $48,000, which is about twice the federal poverty line for a family of four, typically have no discretionary income. The Economic Policy Institute, for example, estimates the minimal family budget for a family of four "to secure an adequate but modest living standard" is at a least $49,000, but in high-cost cities such as Washington, D.C. can exceed $100,000. )

So here are the most affordable colleges for students from families earning $48,000 a year or less.

School Money rank State Affordable for families earning up to $48,000 from: Acceptance rate %
Stanford University 1 CA Any state 6%
Princeton University 3 NJ Any state 7%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 3 MA Any state 8%
Harvard University 6 MA Any state 6%
Amherst College 9 MA Any state 14%
University of Pennsylvania 12 PA Any state 12%
University of Virginia-Main Campus 17 VA VA 30%
Texas A&M University 20 TX TX 69%
Duke University 21 NC Any state 13%
Vanderbilt University 24 TN Any state 13%
Columbia University in the City of New York 28 NY Any state 7%
Brown University 32 RI Any state 9%
University of Washington-Bothell Campus 36 WA WA 76%
Pomona College 38 CA Any state 14%
University of North Carolina School of the Arts 38 NC NC 45%
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 46 NC NC 28%
Berea College 52 KY Any state 34%
University of Washington-Seattle Campus 56 WA WA 55%
Bowdoin College 56 ME Any state 15%
CUNY Bernard M Baruch College 71 NY NY 25%
California State University-Stanislaus 82 CA CA 72%
Colby College 85 ME Any state 26%
Vassar College 96 NY Any state 24%
California State University-Long Beach 121 CA CA 31%
CUNY College of Staten Island 123 NY NY 100%
Wesleyan University 134 CT Any state 21%
California State University-Fresno 141 CA CA 58%
Haverford College 147 PA Any state 23%
Indiana University-Bloomington 157 IN IN 72%
University of Washington-Tacoma Campus 184 WA WA 85%
North Carolina State University at Raleigh 191 NC NC 50%
Texas A & M International University 237 TX TX 48%
California State University-San Bernardino 268 CA CA 58%
Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College 268 LA LA 76%
CUNY Queens College 284 NY NY 37%
California State University-Fullerton 307 CA CA 46%
North Carolina A & T State University 380 NC NC 70%
CUNY Hunter College 426 NY NY 30%
University of South Florida-Main Campus 566 FL FL 45%
Elizabeth City State University 616 NC NC 57%

Read next: Money's 50 Most Affordable Private Colleges