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Published: May 16, 2022 12 min read
University of Michigan Ann Arbor General Commencement April 2022
Eric Bronson / Michigan Photography
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The University of Michigan boasts so many superlatives that it can be hard to keep track. Among its accolades: a world-class reputation that draws students from all over, the highest spending on research among public universities and one of the country’s most vibrant college towns.

And now, the No. 1 college in America, according to Money’s 2022 Best Colleges ranking. Just the second public university to place first, U-Mich snags the top spot thanks in part to its high graduation rate and strong financial aid for in-state students.

Everyone knows that college is expensive nowadays. What’s still hard to know is which colleges are actually worth their price.

Our latest Best Colleges analysis is designed to answer just that. It highlights colleges, like the University of Michigan, that have a record of helping students graduate and launching graduates into jobs with above-average wages. This year, for the first time, we separated our colleges into two lists: a main ranking and a secondary ranking for the country’s most selective schools. (More on that below.)

The result is a group of 671 colleges — 623 on our main list and 48 on our selective list — that offer prospective students a quality education at a comparatively affordable price. Here’s a look at our results.

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How Michigan Lands in the No. 1 Spot

Marvin Shaouni for Money

Michigan pulls off a hat trick in this year’s rankings, scoring high across each of the three categories we look at. But it performs especially well on the affordability measures.

Money estimates the in-state price of a degree from Michigan is less than that of 600-some colleges in our rankings. More than 9,000 in-state undergraduates, about 54%, receive grants from the university. About a quarter of them attend tuition-free.

The university has faced criticism for enrolling a disproportionately large number of students from wealthy backgrounds; one highly publicized study from 2017 found that 9% of the student body had parents in the top 1%. (Economic mobility is, in fact, one of the few areas in our rankings where U-M doesn’t score all that well.)

But that’s an image campus leaders have been trying to change. The Go Blue Guarantee, announced in 2017, promises free tuition to in-state students whose families earn less than $65,000. In the years since, the share of Pell grant recipients, a common indicator of socioeconomic diversity, has climbed slightly — to about 19% of the student body.

Over the past decade, spending on financial aid has increased an average 11% a year. Michigan is also one of the few public universities that meets full need for in-state students, meaning the university offers enough financial aid to cover the difference between its price and a family’s ability to pay.

“We know from so much research that affordability is a key aspect of academic success,” says Amy Dittmar, senior vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs at Michigan. “You can’t have the graduation rates that we have without the support for financial aid.”

Part of Michigan’s strength, Dittmar says, is its emphasis on the student experience both in and out of the classroom.

Residential learning communities, with topics like women in science and writing and the arts, can help first-year students find a community on a campus with 30,000-plus undergraduates. There’s also Resource Navigators, a group of volunteers who reach out to students who aren’t involved in any campus groups and talk through different opportunities, and the Gateway, a center focused on assisting students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Programs like the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, through which more than 1,500 undergrads a year conduct research side-by-side with faculty, help students connect with mentors. Projects presented this past spring ranged from transcribing historical documents from an excavation in Egypt to investigating the effectiveness of a new treatment method for broken bones.

“Once you’re here, the opportunities are almost endless,” Dittmar says.

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What Makes a Top-Ranking College?

Courtesy of The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Michigan is one of several flagship public universities that land at the top of our rankings. There’s also the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (No. 7), where 84% of students are able to quickly get jobs where they earn more than a high school graduate. And the University of Florida (No. 8), a longtime “bang for your buck” bargain, where roughly two-thirds of students are able to earn a degree debt-free.

It’s not just large public universities at the top of our list, though. Virginia’s Washington & Lee University (No. 11), a liberal arts college with about 1,800 students, scores well in part because of graduates’ impressive earnings. Ten years after enrolling, they average about $86,000. Another small liberal arts school, Berea College (No. 20), charges no tuition, instead having students work on campus as the equivalent of a four-year scholarship.

There are also some more niche names: Babson College (No. 13) and Bentley University (No. 24) are hyper-focused on business education. Both boast median early earnings in the six-figures, among the highest in our analysis even when compared against colleges that educate a lot of students in the business fields.

Which is all to say, there’s a college for everyone on our list.

The 25 Best Colleges in the U.S.

The schools that top Money's rankings produce outstanding results at a comparatively affordable price.

Rank College Est. price with average aid Median student debt Early career earnings
1 University of Michigan $18,800 $18,526 $75,840
2 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $10,600 $14,500 $61,920
3 University of Virginia $20,100 $18,250 $77,050
4 Massachusetts Maritime Academy $18,600 $26,000 $91,670
5 Virginia Military Institute $20,000 $21,500 $71,910
6 Georgia Institute of Technology $18,400 $22,250 $88,200
7 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign $14,300 $19,500 $71,540
8 University of Florida $10,600 $15,580 $64,460
9 University of California, Irvine $13,800 $15,060 $71,960
10 University of California, Davis $18,000 $13,199 $69,770
11 Washington and Lee University $28,700 $19,500 $86,020
12 University of California, San Diego $16,100 $16,500 $74,770
13 Babson College $33,300 $22,750 $106,600
14 New Jersey Institute of Technology $19,400 $21,500 $80,040
15 California State University Maritime Academy $22,200 $25,000 $91,460
16 Maine Maritime Academy $19,800 $27,000 $72,840
17 University of Wisconsin-Madison $14,800 $20,500 $65,210
18 California State University, Long Beach $11,200 $14,882 $57,120
19 California State University, Stanislaus $7,800 $14,146 $53,960
20 Berea College $5,200 $3,700 $37,150
21 Lehigh University $30,700 $23,000 $95,030
22 Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University $21,400 $22,406 $73,160
23 Wellesley College $22,800 $10,700 $66,530
24 Bentley University $45,200 $25,000 $107,970
25 California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo $21,600 $19,500 $80,640

 

After-aid prices reflect the average price paid by students who receive any grant or scholarship, based on the most recently available data. Public college prices are for in-state students. Median debt is based only on students who take out loans. Early career earnings are from the federal College Scorecard and capture students' salaries ten years after they first enrolled. SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

We built this year’s rankings by weighing 24 data points. (See our full methodology here.) As always, to prioritize affordability, we put a lot of weight on our unique net price of a degree calculation, and we continue to emphasize graduation rates heavily. We also still estimate a college’s “added value” by calculating its performance after adjusting for the economic and academic backgrounds of the students it admits.

But this year, we streamlined our outcomes measures, focusing on earnings and employment data in the federal College Scorecard. And we added some new measures, including an economic mobility index developed by think tank Third Way. The measure rewards colleges that both enroll large shares of lower- and moderate-income students and launch those students into jobs that help them quickly recoup their costs.

“If the purpose of higher education is to actually lift the next generation up, these are the schools that are doing the work,” says Michael Itzkowitz, who analyzes data on college return on investment and produced the new mobility index.

The Third Way data highlights, once again, what bastions of upward mobility the California State University and University of California systems are. Together, the two systems' 32 campuses claim 27 of our top 100 spots.

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Why We Removed Selective Colleges

Courtesy of Princeton University

One of the biggest messages behind Money’s rankings this year is that a college doesn’t need to be super selective to be a good investment.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 1 on our Best Selective Colleges list), Princeton University (No. 2 on that list), and their peers are outstanding colleges. But who doesn’t know that already?

Those schools receive so many applications from so many qualified candidates that they could fill their classes multiple times over with students who have stellar credentials. So Money chose to rank them separately, in an effort to highlight colleges that will be an option for a greater number of students.

If you are interested in a college that appears on our selective list, you can still compare it to colleges on our main list by looking at the “overall score,” another new feature this year. Doing so will show you that selectivity doesn’t necessarily guarantee a high return on investment. New York University, No. 47 on our selective colleges list, has a score that would place it in the lower half of our overall rankings, due in large part to its high price. It ranks in the bottom 5% on our affordability measures.

To be clear, many of the colleges that score in the top 25 of our main list are not “easy” to get into. At the University of Virginia (No. 3), nearly 90% of first-year students were in the top 10% of their high school class, and at Georgia Tech (No. 6) a quarter of applicants who submitted SAT results had scores above 1520.

The same can be said for the University of Michigan. Applications have ballooned in the past 15 years, driving down the acceptance rate. For the freshman class that started last fall, the overall acceptance rate was 20% — roughly half of what it was a decade ago.

Still, particularly for in-state students, these colleges offer a more reliable shot of acceptance. At Michigan, more than 45% of in-staters get in. And at the 671 colleges Money scored this year, the median acceptance rate is 73%.

As Yvonne Espinoza, a college counselor in Austin, Texas, likes to remind her students: the majority of colleges in the U.S. are accepting most students.

“This focus on the schools that are [selective] is a perception issue,” she says. “That’s not reality. And there’s no way that the highly selective colleges will be the only good fit for you.”

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