What are the best colleges for low income students?

    Jeremy Coppock
    Jeremy Coppock

    Jeremy is an education researcher, journalist, and editor for Degreechoices. He majored in Slavic languages and has a master’s degree in Eastern European studies.

    He has previous experience as a fraud analyst, in-house translator, teacher, and truck driver.

    What are the best colleges for low income students?

      Only applying for the colleges with the cheapest tuition may not be the best strategy.

      Financial aid can make elite colleges accessible – and sometimes even free – for low-income students.

      Our Social Mobility Index reveals what colleges are doing the best job of serving students from low-income households.

      According to our Social Mobility Index, the best colleges for low-income students are Berea College, California State University Los Angeles, and Texas A&M International University.

      Our colleges are failing low-income students. On average, students who are eligible for Pell grants (a need-based government scholarship for low-income students) constitute 34% of all college goers – but they are underrepresented at America’s most “prestigious” colleges and universities. For example, only 17.6% of Ivy League students qualify for Pell.

      More worryingly, college graduates from households who earn $30,000 or less go on to earn 34% less than students from households earning $30,000–$75,000 – and a depressing 59% less than students from households earning over $75,000. Low-income students are also less likely to graduate.

      The good news is that a number of colleges are doing an excellent job serving low-income students. And high-value colleges may be more accessible than you think. Remember that college generally remains worth it – even if you have to take out loans.

      Also read: The most and least expensive private colleges in each state

      As a low-income student, making an informed decision about college could mean the difference between decades of debt and lasting financial stability. In this article, we will take a deep dive into what types of colleges are doing the best job at serving students from underprivileged households while debunking some common misconceptions.

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      Colleges with the cheapest tuition

      Given how expensive tuition has gotten, many people assume that they should prioritize cheap colleges. This is a sensible instinct – taking out too much debt to go to a college you can’t afford is unwise – especially when there are more affordable alternatives. And there may be more cheap but good colleges out there than you think.

      » Also read: The most and least expensive private colleges in each state

      Cheapest in-state tuition

      The 3 colleges with the cheapest in-state tuition are the US Merchant Marine Academy, Elizabeth City University, and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. See the top 10 list below.

      Top 10 colleges with the cheapest in-state tuition Yearly tuition (in state)
      1. US Merchant Marine Academy $1,095
      2. Elizabeth City State University $3,260
      3. University of North Carolina at Pembroke $3,456
      4. Dalton State College $3,683
      5. College of Coastal Georgia $3,933
      6. Middle Georgia State University $4,060
      7. University of Arkansas System eVersity $4,200
      8. Western Carolina University $4,285
      9. Brigham Young University – Idaho $4,300
      10. The University of Texas Permian Basin $4,837

      One hiccup? Tuition at these schools could be higher if you come from a different state. Fortunately, some colleges provide cheap tuition to out-of-state students too.

      Cheapest out-of-state tuition

      The 3 colleges with the cheapest out-of-state tuition are the United States Merchant Marine Academy (again), University of Arkansas System eVersity, and Brigham Young University – Idaho.

      Colleges with the cheapest out-of-state tuition Yearly tuition (out-of-state)
      1. United States Merchant Marine Academy $1,095
      2.  University of Arkansas System eVersity $4,200
      3. Brigham Young University-Idaho $4,300
      4. Urshan College $5,556
      5. Columbia Southern University $5,775
      6. Brigham Young University-Hawaii $5,890
      7. Brigham Young University $5,970
      8. City Vision University $6,000
      9. Pacific Islands University $6,110
      10. Manna University $6,200

      Colleges with the lowest net cost

      Note that both lists above only reflect tuition fees – not net price, which would factor in other college-related costs like room, board, and financial aid. Also keep in mind that many of these schools have a religious affiliation.

      If you’re interested in colleges with the lowest net cost, see our list of the most affordable national universities in the US. It ranks colleges based on the average net price for students (based on income bracket) and excludes certain colleges whose investment value is so low that paying anything at all would be a waste of money.

      Colleges with best financial aid for low-income families

      While it’s smart to be frugal, basing your college choice solely on low tuition may not be the best idea for several reasons:

      1. It doesn’t factor in financial aid, which allows many students to pay much less for college than the sticker price you might see quoted on a college’s website.
      2. It ignores the college’s value for money, which reflects how much more money you could make with a particular degree compared to someone who didn’t go to college at all – even if you have to take out student loans.

      A little confused? Let us explain.

      You may be surprised to learn that the actual cost of college has been getting cheaper. How is this possible? Simply put, while tuition costs are rising, colleges are offering more financial aid.

      Where does financial aid come from?

      Financial aid usually takes the form of government grants and institutional scholarships. Grants are generally based on need (the less money your family makes, the more money you get), and they come from the government.

      The most common need-based government grant for low-income students is the Pell Grant.

      Meanwhile, institutional scholarships can be based on need and/or aptitude, and they come from the college’s endowment. This means that some colleges – especially established, prestigious universities – can afford to offer a lot of financial aid.

      Colleges with the best financial aid

      One way to determine what are the colleges with the best financial aid for low-income families is to look at the average net cost of college for students in the $0–$30,000 income bracket.

      What is the net cost of college?

      The net cost of college is how much money the average student ends up paying after tuition, room and board, textbooks, financial aid, and other cost factors have been taken into consideration. We get this data from College Scorecard.

      After financial aid, the most affordable colleges for low-income students are Caltech, the University of Florida, and Washington and Lee University. The high caliber of these world-famous institutions underscores the fact that students from low-income families shouldn’t just look at colleges with a low sticker price.

      Net costs for these schools are shockingly low. So low, in fact, that the average low-income Caltech student actually ends up earning $539 a year from going to college.

      Colleges with best financial aid for low-income families Average yearly net price
      1. California Institute of Technology $-539
      2. University of Florida $65
      3. Washington and Lee University $205
      4. Northwestern University $245
      5. Duke University $371
      6. CUNY Hunter College $396
      7. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College $493
      8. University of Pennsylvania $580
      9. CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice $788
      10. University of Florida-Online $848

      Colleges could have a low net price due to a combination of the following factors:

      1. They offer generous scholarships, although they may not accept many low- income students (which is the case for schools like Caltech or Duke).
      2. They have relatively low tuition to begin with.
      3. Many of their students are low-income and therefore eligible for Pell grants from the government (like CUNY John Jay, where 55% of the student body is from a low-income household).

      No matter the reason for a college’s low net cost, the key takeaway is that you shouldn’t hesitate to apply to a college just because you think you can’t afford it. Many elite colleges are looking to attract more low-income students – and they’re willing to support you with scholarships.

      Make your decision based on your financial aid offer, not the college’s sticker price.

      Colleges with the best scholarships

      Another way to determine the most generous schools is to examine which colleges give the biggest institutional scholarships, in dollar terms. These schools are throwing the largest amount of money at prospective college goers to encourage more low-income students to attend. Note that although these scholarships are nothing to sneeze at, they may not be sufficient for a “full ride” if tuition is really high.

      The 3 colleges with the best scholarships (i.e., institutional grants) are Amherst College, Harvard University, and Yale University.

      Colleges with the best scholarships Average yearly scholarship amount Percent of students who receive a scholarship
      1. Amherst College $57,022 60%
      2. Harvard University $56,127 56%
      3. Yale University $56,082 58%
      4. Colby College $56,042 39%
      5. Wesleyan University $55,516 40%
      6. Brown University $54,314 45%
      7. Stanford University $54,057 60%
      8. Wellesley College $53,971 58%
      9. Washington and Lee University $53,770 52%
      10. Columbia University $53,589 52%

      It’s worth noting that many universities on this list are elite private colleges that do not admit many low-income students. For example, only 13% of Harvard students are from families that make less than $30,000 a year.

      Colleges where low-income students go on to earn the most

      We’ve established that low tuition isn’t everything, thanks to scholarships and grants. But what if you’re not afraid of debt, and you just want to go to a college that will unlock the highest salaries?

      Theoretically, taking on student debt could be worth it if you’re paid a lot after graduation.

      Unfortunately, low-income students tend to earn less money after graduating than their wealthier peers. In fact, students from households earning $30,000 or less per year, on average, earn $47,400 per year 10 years after enrolling in college, compared to $61,968 for students from the highest-income bracket.

      Fortunately, some colleges pave the way to impressive salaries for low-income students too. Below is a list of colleges where low-income students go on to earn the most, along with a the average salary for attendees who received Pell grants, 10 years after graduating.

      Highest-earning colleges for low-income students Average salary, 10 years after enrollment
      1. California Institute of Technology $118,236
      2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology $110,628
      3. Harvey Mudd College $105,696
      4. Bentley University $105,284
      5. Carnegie Mellon University $101,086
      6. Stevens Institute of Technology $97,463
      7. Stanford University $93,581
      8. Kettering University $93,264
      9. Santa Clara University $90,908
      10. University of the Sciences $90,475

      While these numbers are pretty impressive, several caveats are necessary.

      First, most of these colleges accept very few low-income students: only 16.6% of the students at the schools in this list were elgible for Pell grants.

      Second, many of these schools focus on STEM. STEM graduates go on to earn a lot more on average than other college students. This gives STEM-focused schools an advantage in earnings metrics, as less lucrative majors are not pulling down the stats for the school.

      Third, these schools don’t necessarily offer very good financial aid, meaning that you may spend a long time using your 6-figure salary to pay back your student loans.

      The best-value colleges for low-income students

      So where is the sweet spot between low tuition and high earnings?

      It helps if you look at your college education as an investment. When you invest, you spend money on something that you believe will earn you more money down the road. A lucrative investment has low costs and high future profits.

      To help you understand what colleges are the best investment, we have come up with a transparent formula that generates an “economic score”. This economic score shows what schools are a good deal, based on net price and earnings data.

      What is an economic score?

      At Degreechoices, we rank colleges transparently based on value for money rather than prestige. To do this, we generate an economic score, which is calculated based on 2 metrics:

      • Payback, which is how long it would take a student to repay the cost of attending college with marginal earnings.
      • EarningsPlus, which considers earnings performance at each school without taking cost into account.

      The lower the economic score, the better.

      Here, we have tailored our ranking methodology specifically for low-income students, basing it on the net price of college for students in the $0–$30,000 income bracket and their salaries 10 years after enrollment.

      According to our metrics, the 3 best-value colleges for low-income students are Caltech, the University of Florida, and Northwestern University. Note that our metrics reward degrees that are very affordable (like the University of Florida) as well as ones that are very lucrative, even if they’re not cheap (like Northwestern).

      Best value colleges for low-income students Economic Score
      1. California Institute of Technology -0.011
      2. University of Florida 0.006
      3. Northwestern University 0.012
      4. Duke University 0.014
      5. University of Pennsylvania 0.024
      6. Stanford University 0.045
      7. CUNY Bernard M Baruch College 0.047
      8. Yale University 0.051
      9. CUNY Hunter College 0.066
      10. Washington and Lee University 0.079

      To explore the best colleges and universities in the US based on value for money (regardless of your income bracket), check out our rankings of America’s best national universities.

      The best colleges for low-income students: our Social Mobility Index

      There is one problem with our rankings of the highest-value colleges for low-income students: not many Pell-eligible students are actually admitted. For example, while low-income students generally get full rides to Caltech, only 12% of its student body is from a low-income household.

      Unfortunately, college rankings often put low-income students at a disadvantage, as underprivileged high-schoolers don’t have equitable access to a host of advantages that come with a higher income. This makes it more difficult to get into prestigious schools.

      To address this issue, we have devised a Social Mobility Index (SMI) based on the methodology of Third Way. This index adjusts our rankings (based on economic scores for low-income college-goers) by how many low-income students each college admits. For our SMI, a higher score is better.

      This index is the ultimate ranking of the best colleges for low-income students, as it factors in both the value of the degree and the number of low-income students benefiting from it.

      Based on our social mobility index, the 3 best colleges for low-income students are Berea College, California State University, and Texas A&M University.

      These schools are a solid educational investment that are doing an excellent job of educating low-income students.

      Also check out our article on the colleges with the highest graduation rates, which has useful info on grad rates among Pell grant recipients.

      How to get the most out of college as a low-income student

      As a low-income student, there are several ways you can get the most bang for your buck in college. Remember that college is still worth it, you just need to be smart about where you go. Below are some hints for deriving the most value from your college experience and paying the least for your education.

      Remember your FAFSA

      If you want financial aid, filling in your FAFSA form is absolutely essential, as this is how colleges determine how much scholarship money you qualify for. To fill out your FAFSA, you will probably need to work together with your parents or caregivers, as the form will ask about their financial details.

      Focus on public universities

      Unless you can get into a top private school that provides generous scholarships, in-state public universities are your best bet. Avoid expensive liberal arts schools unless they give you a really sweet financial aid package.

      Reach out to your high school guidance counselor or your academic advisor

      Applying to college is a convoluted process. A guidance counselor can help you stay on track with application and FAFSA deadlines so that you get all the financial aid you’re eligible for. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the financial aid process, don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor.

      Consider starting out at a community college

      One way to save money on college is to spend 2 years at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year university for your junior and senior year. This can save you money, as credits or generally much cheaper at community colleges than at universities. Just make sure that the 4-year college you’re aiming for accepts transfer credits.

      Final thoughts

      College in the US can seem scary expensive, especially to students from an underprivileged background. But higher education still remains one of the best investments out there, as long as you’re smart about where you go and what you study. Remember that thanks to government grants and college scholarships, valuable degrees are accessible to many low-income students.

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