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By Kaitlin Mulhere
Updated: November 18, 2020 6:20 PM ET
Courtesy of Manhattan College

Like many colleges, San José State University sets regular goals for boosting its graduation rate, reducing inequity, and improving its advisor-to-student ratio.

But the idea isn’t just to meet those targets — it’s to exceed them, says Provost Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. That’s what makes the school unique.

“We’re very proud,” Del Casino says. “But we have a long way to go. We want to do better than the goals.”

Since 2015, the California public university has increased its four-year graduation rate from 19% to 29%. And Money calculates that its six-year graduation rate (65%) is 31% higher than would be expected based on the academic preparation and economic makeup of the university’s student body. After college, students report average salaries that are also higher than expected.

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All those stats have helped SJSU top Money’s 2020 “Most Transformative Colleges” list, which highlights colleges that do the best at getting comparable student populations to graduation and into decent-paying jobs. Colleges that enroll large numbers of wealthier or high-performing students are more likely to have strong graduation and job placement rates.

To even the playing field, the transformative list ranks colleges on how they perform given what’s typical for schools with similar students, whether that’s a large share of lower-income students or predominantly students with strong grades, for example. The list, which is in its 3rd year, is based off Money’s “value-add” scores, an analysis that considers how well a college is doing after controlling for the demographics of its students. To calculate a college’s value add, our team looked at average test scores and high school GPAs of incoming students, the share of full-time students enrolled, and the share of students who receive federal grants for low- and moderate-income families. (Read more about our calculations here.)

At San José State, roughly half of students are considered first-generation students. About four in 10 qualify for federal Pell grants, and most come from the surrounding communities in Santa Clara County.

Helping those students better navigate all the resources and opportunities available on the 35,000-person campus has been key to keeping students enrolled and on-track to graduate.

“When you pull the data apart, academics are important, but a sense of belonging is crucial,” Del Casino says.

By 2025, SJSU is aiming to hit a four-year graduation rate of at least 35%, a number the university is on track to surpass. To do so, San José State focused on reducing bottlenecks in the system that kept students from making progress toward their degree, Del Casino says. That includes expanding courses during winter and summer terms and increasing the number of high-demand courses so students wouldn’t have to wait for a semester to get into pre-requisite courses they needed to advance. Software helps officials track which courses have the highest rates of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals, so the university can direct additional resources, including tutors and peer mentors to help students pass those courses.

The university has emphasized those wraparound services even more this year, putting money into ensuring students taking tougher classes online as the campus switched to a fully virtual course load would have as much, if not more, access to academic support as they would on campus.

There are some goals Del Casino’s staff is still improving on. At 600-to-1, the advisor-to-student ratio on campus is above the national average and so large that it’s hard for advisors to form more individualized relationships with students. Eventually, Del Casino says he’d like that ratio to drop to 300-to-1.

“It takes the intimate work of conversation and connection” to create an environment where students feel supported, he says.

There are hundreds of colleges that are ahead of the pack when it comes to preparing students for successful post-collegiate careers. Many you’ve heard of, but others like San José State University likely aren’t on your radar.

Several of the colleges on Money’s transformative college list look a lot like SJSU: Large, affordable, public universities with missions to offer accessible higher education and social mobility. Others are small private colleges that excel at serving students within a specific topic area, like health sciences or business. All of them score high on our value-add measures for graduation rates, earnings, and student loan repayment, meaning their students and graduates are performing better than comparable populations in those areas.

Read about the top 10 below and see the full list here.

1. San José State University

Brandon Chew / SJSU

Est. price with average grant: $15,200
Early career earnings: $60,600
Earnings premium over peers: $13,500

It’s not just graduation rates where SJSU stands out in Money’s rankings — the college also scores very high on our outcomes measures. In that sense, being in the middle of downtown San José and close to Silicon Valley gives the college an edge. “Who else can point to both Adobe and Zoom from their campus window?” Del Casino says.

Thousands of graduates are employed by top tech companies like Apple and Cisco, Del Casino says. Aside from the tech industry, the students get hands-on experience with neighborhood projects and local organizations through the CommUniverCity program, and hundreds of students work in the mayor’s office. The result of all this high-touch, resume-building experience? Recent grads report average salaries that are 29% higher than colleges with comparable students and 16% higher than colleges where students study a similar mix of majors.

2. Maine Maritime Academy

Courtesy of Maine Maritime Academy

Est. price with average grant: $21,800
Early career earnings: $70,600
Earnings premium over peers: $23,800

You may think Maine Maritime relies on its nautical expertise and Atlantic seacoast location to hook sailors and marine enthusiasts. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But one of the academy’s major draws is the success of its alums. The fields the academy specializes in — engineering, transportation, and marine science — can lead to lucrative careers. The school says 90% of students have a job within 90 days, and the average salaries reported by recent graduates are a whopping 50% higher than schools that enroll students with similar academic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

3. Mount Saint Mary’s University

Courtesy of Mount Saint Mary's University

Est. price with average grant: $30,900
Early career earnings: $50,800
Earnings premium over peers: $6,000

More than 90% of students at this private Catholic university are women, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college. The college stands out in Money’s rankings for a graduation rate that’s 49% higher than would be expected based on the student body. Students are known as Athenians, named after Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and many activities focus on encouraging women’s leadership skills.

4. MCPHS University

Courtesy of MCPHS University

Est. price with average grant: $41,400
Early career earnings: $59,700
Earnings premium over peers: $10,500

A small, private university that focuses on preparing students to work in the medical and health fields, it’s little surprise the MCPHS University is a standout for high alumni salaries. Recent graduates report average earnings of nearly $60,000, according to Payscale. That’s 21% higher than expected of colleges that enroll similar students, according to Money’s calculations. Even after controlling for the types of majors more common on campus, MCPHS alumni report above-average salaries.

5. California State University, Stanislaus

Courtesy of Stanislaus State

Est. price with average grant: $7,200
Early career earnings: $14,250
Earnings premium over peers: $1,900

Stan State has come a long way from its county fairground origins. Today, the university educates about 10,000 students and has been recognized by many publications (including Money) for its success in helping students advance on the socioeconomic ladder. According to Money’s calculations, the university’s graduation rate is 40% higher than would be expected for its student body.

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6. California State University, Northridge

Courtesy of Cal State University Northridge

Est. price with average grant: $8,900
Early career earnings: $48,600
Earnings premium over peers: $3,300

Like much of the California State University system, the Northridge campus stands out for successfully serving a large number of lower-income students. CSUN’s graduation rate, for example, is 37% higher than would be expected based on the academic and economic backgrounds of the students enrolled, according to Money’s analysis. The university also lands in the top 5% in Opportunity Insights’ measurements of intergenerational mobility at colleges.

7. California State University, Fresno

Cary Edmondson / Fresno State Archive

Est. price with average grant: $7,100
Early career earnings: $48,000
Earnings premium over peers: $3,100

Fresno State opened more than a century ago, with a student body of about 150 teacher hopefuls. Today, the university says it graduates more K-12 school teachers than any other public university in California. In Money’s rankings, Fresno State stands out for affordability; on top of federal and state aid, the university awards $250 million in financial aid each year. While the average salary of recent graduates may not be as high as other top-ranking colleges, Fresno State alums are still doing fine financially: Alumni have a federal student loan repayment rate that 15% higher than would be expected based on the college’s demographics.

8. Manhattan College

Courtesy of Manhattan College

Est. price with average grant: $35,700
Early career earnings: $63,400
Earnings premium over peers: $16,200

Manhattan College is a private Catholic school that combines a liberal arts background with popular business and engineering programs. College leaders told Money in 2019 that one of the keys to its success in our ranking was deeply individualized attention to every student. Money calculates that the college’s graduation rate is 25% higher than would be expected of colleges with similar students. Its Bronx location helps students snag internships and jobs in New York City, which likely helps explain that its average alumni salaries are also above average.

9. California State University, Sacramento

Sacramento State / University Communications

Est. price with average grant: $10,300
Early career earnings: $52,100
Earnings premium over peers: $6,500

A member of the 23-campus California State University system, Sac State has a 300-acre campus with more than 3,500 trees, a fact that’s earned it the “Tree Campus USA” accolade by the Arbor Day Foundation for the past several years. Of course, that’s not the university’s only pride point. It’s also home to the first paramedic program in the CSU system and is regularly recognized for enrolling a diverse student body. In recent years, officials have focused on increasing the university’s four-year graduation rate, nearly doubling it since 2014. Money’s analysis finds that graduates report average salaries that are 14% higher than expected for schools that enroll similar students.

10. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Tom Zasadzinski / Cal Poly Pomona

Est. price with average grant: $13,300
Early career earnings: $55,000
Earnings premium over peers: $8,400

One of two polytechnic universities in California, Cal Poly Pomona has strong programs in engineering and business, as well as renowned programs in hospitality management, agriculture, and apparel merchandising and management. The university prides itself on cultivating success through experiential learning, discovery and innovation.” Opportunities for hands-on projects and research with faculty members are woven throughout the curriculum. It appears to work: the university’s graduation rate of 71% is nearly 35% higher than expected based on schools with comparable student demographics, according to Money’s analysis. Average alumni earnings are also higher than expected when compared with similar schools.

More from Money:

The Best Colleges in America, Ranked by Value

How Will Students Get College Scholarships if They Can’t Take the SAT?

5 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in an Online College

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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