50 best public colleges ranked from least to most expensive
The weight of student loan debt in the U.S. has become a genuine crisis: 44.7 million Americans now cumulatively owe $1.56 trillion in student debt as of 2019, an amount second only to mortgage debt in its magnitude. And yet, the worth of a college degree in the workplace continues to grow as college education becomes less financially attainable. In a phenomenon known as degree inflation, employers are increasingly seeking employees who hold four-year degrees, even for roles that have never required that level of education. In a world where a college degree is a potential path to financial success, but the degree itself comes at such a high cost, what's a student to do?
In some countries, such as Poland and Denmark, getting an affordable (virtually free) public education is within reach of all citizens and members of other EU nations. In the United States, the cost of public school depends on state residency. Some public universities have remained relatively affordable options for both state residents and out-of-state students. Others, however, have become more expensive on both fronts, or have had to hike up out-of-state tuition costs to keep in-state prices low. Here, Stacker has ranked the 50 best public universities in the country in order from least to most expensive.
To compile this list, Stacker scoured data from Niche, a site that reviews and ranks schools according to factors like acceptance rates, the average student loan amount, diversity, quality of professors, and more. This list comprises Niche's 50 top public colleges of 2020, and the schools have been ranked in terms of their out-of-state tuition costs, sourced from each school's website. For the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at Austin, rates in this story reflect an average of the tuition for all undergrad schools at the university. Read on to find out which entirely free university will leave your piggy bank full, which pricey school still has some of the happiest students in the country, and which affordable university held an honorary graduation in space.
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#50. United States Military Academy at West Point
- Tuition: $0 (out-of-state); $0 (in-state, #1 least expensive)
- Location: West Point, New York
- Students: 4,491 (student-to-faculty ratio: 7:1)
- Acceptance rate: 10% (ACT: 23-28; SAT: 1180-1400)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 86%; six-year median earnings: data not available
In a world where college prices are rising and student debt is at an all-time high, the United States Military Academy at West Point stands apart as a completely free option for a four-year education. It's not just classes that are covered, either: students at this military academy receive room, board, and health care entirely free of cost. Most West Point students (about 94% of them) come from out of state, but getting into this prestigious academy is no cakewalk for anyone, as the acceptance rate is about 10%.
#49. North Carolina State University
- Tuition: $14,610 (out-of-state); $4,550 (in-state, #2 least expensive)
- Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
- Students: 21,384 (student-to-faculty ratio: 13:1)
- Acceptance rate: 51% (ACT: 26-31; SAT: 1230-1390)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 79%; six-year median earnings: $52,500
With Business, Biology, Agricultural Science, and Engineering as some of its strongest and most popular majors, North Carolina State University was ranked by US News & World Report as #34 on the list of Top Public Schools in America. As of 2019, undergraduates made up more than two-thirds of the total student presence on campus, and 80% of students came from in-state. Fun fact: NCSU students often take part in the annual “Krispy Kreme Challenge”, which involves racing to a local Krispy Kreme and then attempting to scarf down a dozen doughnuts.
#48. University of South Florida
- Tuition: $17,324 (out-of-state); $6,410 (in-state, #4 least expensive)
- Location: Tampa, Florida
- Students: 24,672 (student-to-faculty ratio: 22:1)
- Acceptance rate: 45% (ACT: 24-29; SAT: 1150-1310)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 71%; six-year median earnings: $43,500
The University of South Florida has been lauded for its graduate programs, with grad students comprising about 10,000 spots on campus at the Tampa location, and ranks well for undergraduate studies in nursing, technology, and criminal justice. Both the in-state and out-of-state tuition for this university make it a relatively affordable option, though out-of-state students make up a small portion of the student body. Only 428 new out-of-state students joined the USF Tampa campus in 2018, as opposed to more than 2,000 in-state freshmen.
#47. Florida State University
- Tuition: $21,683 (out-of-state); $6,516 (in-state, #5 least expensive)
- Location: Tallahassee, Florida
- Students: 29,286 (student-to-faculty ratio: 22:1)
- Acceptance rate: 49% (ACT: 26-30; SAT: 1190-1330)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 80%; six-year median earnings: $46,400
Founded in 1851, Florida State University is both a space-grant and sea-grant university, meaning it participates in cutting-edge space and sea research on a national level. Over 80% of FSU students are Floridians, meaning they get to attend one of Florida's three designated “preeminent universities” at the relatively low tuition cost of $6,516 annually. Undergraduates made up about 78% of the student body, with women making up more than half of total enrollment.
#46. Iowa State University
- Tuition: $23,230 (out-of-state); $8,042 (in-state, #7 least expensive)
- Location: Ames, Iowa
- Students: 28,743 (student-to-faculty ratio: 19:1)
- Acceptance rate: 89% (ACT: 22-28; SAT: 1160-1410)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 73%; six-year median earnings: $50,700
Iowa State University offers the traditional spectrum of majors, but students tend to gravitate towards a particular few: in the fall of 2018, 20% of students were studying mechanical engineering, kinesiology, aerospace engineering, animal science, or computer engineering. Gender also plays a role in this breakdown: female students, who comprise 43% of the student body, are also largely interested in elementary education, biology, and psychology. Unlike many other state schools, only about half the students at Iowa State are native Iowans.
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#45. California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo
- Tuition: $23,832 (out-of-state); $9,942 (in-state, #14 least expensive)
- Location: San Luis Obispo, California
- Students: 20,584 (student-to-faculty ratio: 22:1)
- Acceptance rate: 35% (ACT: 26-31; SAT: 1200-1380)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 79%; six-year median earnings: $66,900
With a selective admissions rate, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo (often shortened to the much pithier Cal Poly SLO) is an academically revered college, especially for those interested in computer science and aerospace studies. In 2018, students were concerned by a proposal to hike tuition at all CSU campuses by 4%, but the plan was ultimately rejected by the Board of Trustees after sufficient backlash. Officials insist the CSU system needs increased funding to thrive, but will seek this money from the state instead.
#44. James Madison University
- Tuition: $24,150 (out-of-state); $7,250 (in-state, #6 least expensive)
- Location: Harrisonburg, Virginia
- Students: 18,905 (student-to-faculty ratio: 16:1)
- Acceptance rate: 75% (ACT: 23-28; SAT: 1100-1260)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 83%; six-year median earnings: $56,600
James Madison University, founded in 1908 and named after the fourth President of the United States (who was, in all likelihood, not as vocally gifted as the musical Hamilton would have you believe), is located in Harrisonburg, Virginia. JMU's tuition has increased annually many years in a row; in 2018, it was announced that out-of-state tuition would rise by $684, and in-state tuition would rise by $370. However, in 2019, the Board of Visitors at JMU excited many by voting not to hike in-state tuition prices for the first time in nearly two decades—instead, more than $50 million additional state dollars will be put towards the university.
#43. University of Oklahoma
- Tuition: $24,191 (out-of-state); $8,810 (in-state, #8 least expensive)
- Location: Norman, Oklahoma
- Students: 19,065 (student-to-faculty ratio: 18:1)
- Acceptance rate: 74% (ACT: 23-29; SAT: 1150-1380)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 67%; six-year median earnings: $51,100
Despite its large student population, the University of Oklahoma keeps class sizes small—4% of classes on the UO campus have 100 or more students, which may be a factor in the high retention rate. UO, which recently came under fire for allegedly misreporting some information to US News & World Report, boasts impressive financial numbers: the Princeton Review gives Oklahoma University a financial aid rating of 92.
#42. Washington State University
- Tuition: $25,088 (out-of-state); $10,510 (in-state, #17 least expensive)
- Location: Pullman, Washington
- Students: 22,166 (student-to-faculty ratio: 15:1)
- Acceptance rate: 73% (ACT: 20-26; SAT: 1020-1220)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 62%; six-year median earnings: $50,600
Washington State University, a public college often ranked as amongst the safest and most LGBTQ+-friendly in the nation, has also generated recent buzz around the strength of its online courses: Three of them, including the Engineering and Technology Management Program, were ranked amongst the top in the nation in 2019. WSU also values affordability so much, it teamed up with historic rival University of Washington to promote a campaign called Yes, It's Possible. The campaign aims to raise awareness of collegiate affordability in Washington state.
#41. University of Cincinnati
- Tuition: $26,994 (out-of-state); $11,660 (in-state, #24 most expensive)
- Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
- Students: 22,622 (student-to-faculty ratio: 16:1)
- Acceptance rate: 76% (ACT: 23-28; SAT: 1120-1340)
- Outcomes: graduation rate: 69%; six-year median earnings: $42,300
Business, Health Professions, and Engineering—all of which typically lead to excellent postgraduate financial success—comprise the most popular majors at the University of Cincinnati, Niche’s #2 public university in Ohio. Over 40% of classes are small (between two and 19 students), and the urban school is a much more likely four-year destination for in-state residents (81%), whose tuition costs are obviously friendlier. Besides a renowned Division I program, non-varsity athletes—and those uninterested in sports—can choose from an array of some 300 campus organizations.
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