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When it comes to choosing a college, cost has to come into play. We’re all nervous about the economy, and we all want some reassurance that we’ll get a good return on our investment. But, when you start crunching the numbers, a surprising thing happens – some of the best values are not the cheapest up front.

Specifically, when you begin considering ROI (Return on Investment – the amount of money you can make in twenty years with a degree from a particular institution, minus the cost of attendance, versus no degree), it turns out that the quality and reputation of a school is a key to value. It only makes sense; a degree from a school with a good reputation ensures that employers will put your resume at the top of the stack, and the connections you can make at a well-known school may help you skip that resume stage altogether.

To make this list, we used three sets of figures from three sources: 20-year net ROI from, average debt statistics from the Princeton Review 2013 Best Value Colleges report, and IPEDS graduation rate statistics. As for the schools we had to choose from, the field was narrowed down to institutions with the following characteristics:

  • 4-year degree granting
  • regionally accredited
  • public and private US only
  • over 50% graduation rate
  • more than 1000 students

These standards allow us to include Ivy League and public state universities, liberal arts colleges and research institutions, smaller colleges and gigantic systems. Don’t let the sticker price stop you from applying to the best values. All of these numbers are raw, and don’t account for the scholarship and grant opportunities available to exceptional students. For instance, most of the Ivy League universities, and many of the Public Ivies, have programs in place to make sure any student who is accepted can find the means to pay through scholarships and grants, usually without the need for student loans. Many of the colleges on this list also appear on our Top 25 tuition-free colleges feature, a great indication of potential value.

The top of our list for value colleges is Princeton University. “But how can an Ivy League university be a value,” you may wonder. One of the oldest universities in America, with an international reputation for excellence, Princeton combines a high ROI (as one would expect) with a high graduation rate and a surprisingly low student debt rate. That’s because Princeton, like many Ivy League institutions, makes sure that any student who qualifies to attend, but can’t afford to pay, can get their tuition paid in full with grants instead of student loans. Princeton wants the best and brightest, and they will do what it takes to get those students there. All of which adds up to a great investment.

Total cost of attendance $217,300

20-year ROI $690,800

Graduate rate 96%

Average Graduate Debt: $5,330


California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Beckman Institute @ Caltech by smerikalCC 2.0

The California Institute of Technology, Caltech, is known for many things: its incredible, award-winning alumni and faculty (more than 30 Nobel Prizes); its location in sunny Pasadena; and its notorious pranking culture (often at the expense of cross-country rival MIT). But Caltech deserves to be known for something else – its status as an excellent investment. Caltech students have a high graduation rate, and graduates can expect an excellent return on investment for little or no student loan debt.

Total cost of attendance: $220,400

20-year ROI: $837,600

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $13,442


Harvard University

When you think of “Ivy League,” you’re thinking of Harvard. Its historic campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, defines the look of the Ivy League, and its history of excellence includes senators, presidents, and CEOs. While its tuition cost looks high on paper, Harvard ensures that every student who is accepted is able to attend (students whose family income is less than $60,000 pay nothing, according to our Top 25 tuition-free colleges), and with a 97% graduation rate, Harvard sees to it that nearly every student gets to benefit from a spectacular ROI.

Total cost of attendance: $225,700

20-year ROI: $650,100

Graduate rate: 97%

Average Graduate Debt: $11,780


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The institution at the receiving end of many of those pranks mentioned in #2, MIT may be the more recognizable of the two institutes of technology, and its status as a college value is pretty close. In fact, it has a higher graduation rate than Caltech (at 93%), but a slightly lower ROI, though it’s still so high that hardly matters. MIT is the other world-renowned institution in Cambridge, MA, and it can boast enough distinguished alumni and award-winning faculty to put nearly any other university to shame. When you consider that nearly every student leaves without loan debt (see our Top 25 tuition-free colleges), it’s an unbelievable investment.

Total cost of attendance: $223,400

20-year ROI: $831,100

Graduate rate: 93%

Average Graduate Debt: $15,228


Stanford University

Stanford University located in Stanford, California is famously the most selective university in America, accepting only 5% of applicants, but those standards have benefits for the students who make it in – a high graduation rate and top ROI mean that those who squeeze in get a great value. As one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Stanford has a commitment to making sure top students get the financial help they need, and many students pay nothing themselves, coming out with little or no loan debt.

Total cost of attendance: $236,300

20-year ROI: $789,500

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $16,458


Williams College

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Named the best liberal arts college in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, and best college in America by Forbes Magazine, Williams College, located in the lovely hamlet of Williamstown, Massachusetts, has an obvious reputation of excellence. But what those lists won’t tell you is what a great value Williams is. They’re highly selective, but the college makes sure that everyone admitted is able to pay their way with financial aid, including books, fees, and everything. Plus, they make a point of subsidizing most campus events, so students get parties, cultural events, and more for free or next to nothing. Students typically graduate with no debt, and those who do, it’s easy to pay back with Williams’ high ROI.

Total cost of attendance: $226,500

20-year ROI: $623,500

Graduate rate: 96%

Average Graduate Debt: $8,801


Columbia University

Columbia University is so old, it was originally King’s College, founded by order of King George II. That’s a long time to establish a reputation, and Columbia’s is among the greats. The Pulitzer Prize? Given out by Columbia. Presidents on its alumni list? Includes both Roosevelts. Attended by actor James Franco? Unfortunately, yes. On Value Colleges’ own Top 25 tuition-free colleges list? Yes, because anyone who gets accepted and makes under $60,000 gets free tuition. Add to that a low grad debt ratio and high 20-year ROI, and Columbia looks like a top investment.

Total cost of attendance: $236,500

20-year ROI: $614,300

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $12,500


Dartmouth College

Dartmouth is a private, Ivy League college in New Hampshire, and, like Columbia, is one of the nine colleges founded before the American Revolution. It’s smaller, and a little lesser-known than some of the other Ivies like Harvard and Yale, but just because it flies a little under the radar doesn’t make it any less of a value. Like the other Ivies, Dartmouth recently phased out student loans and focuses on helping students pay their tuition with grants and scholarships, so most students come out with low debt. The 20-year ROI is still extraordinarily high, with students expected to earn $666,000 more than they would have without college.

Total cost of attendance: $233,600

20-year ROI: $666,000

Graduate rate: 96%

Average Graduate Debt: $17,113


Yale University

Like Harvard or Princeton, Yale defines the Ivy League. It is the alma mater of presidents, Nobel Prize winners, and Rhodes Scholars, and it has a tremendous history. Yale was the first institution to award Ph.D.s in the United States. They have a color named after them (Yale Blue). And they’re one of our own Top 25 tuition-free colleges, awarding free tuition to any student who makes less than $65,000 a year. Graduating students have an average grad debt that they can probably pay off in a few months, and the ROI is more than solid. It’s a great value for your money – or theirs, to be specific.

Total cost of attendance: $230,100

20-year ROI: $559,600

Graduate rate: 96%

Average Graduate Debt: $9,254


University of Pennsylvania

Those in the know just call it Penn, and it’s legendary. The University of Pennsylvania, a private, Ivy League research university in the great town of Philly, has the distinction of being founded by Ben Franklin himself before the American Revolution. It’s been a leader since the beginning, the first US college with a multi-disciplinary curriculum, first with a medical school, and first with a business school. It continues that tradition, with numerous Nobel Prize winners here in its third century. And all that prestige comes with a high ROI and a low debt rate, making Penn a great value college.

Total cost of attendance: $230,800

20-year ROI: $641,100

Graduate rate: 96%

Average Graduate Debt: $17,013


Rice University

Rice University isn’t an Ivy, but it may as well be. This small, private research university (in sunny Houston, TX) has a low student to faculty ratio and a reputation for innovative, applied scientific research and entrepreneurship. Students get to work with the top researchers in their field, much more directly than at larger universities, and that makes for an excellent start in science and business. Its list of scholars and prize winners, including the Nobel and Pulitzer, is in a high proportion to its size. Students leave with little debt and an excellent ROI, higher even than some Ivy Leagues. Who says you have to go to New England for an Ivy-level education? Texas winters and a top value college can’t be beat.

Total cost of attendance: $200,200

20-year ROI: $633,400

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $16,528


Duke University

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Duke University stands alongside Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton in reputation, and while it may not be as old as the Ivies, it’s more than made up for it. Duke is one of the wealthiest colleges in the US, with research spending of over a billion dollars, and its medical school and biomedical research are some of the most productive in the world. AIDs vaccines, cancer studies, and cardiovascular innovations are just some of Duke’s accomplishments. It’s among the most competitive colleges, but for those who make the cut, there’s an impressive ROI, a high graduation rate, and a low debt ratio to make Duke a surprisingly great value.

Total cost of attendance: $230,300

20-year ROI: $591,500

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $16,502


University of California - Berkeley

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Berkeley is a public research university in, where else, Berkeley, California. The most selective public university in the US, Berkeley’s reputation for excellence is known all over the world. Nobel Prize winners, inspiring entrepreneurs, and challenging cultural critics and philosophers keep Berkeley in the news with their discoveries. Berkeley, of course, is also known for its history of activism, protest, and community engagement, sometimes notoriously so. But that reputation doesn’t take into account Berkeley’s academic rigor – high selectivity and a slightly lower graduation rate than other comparable institutions means that Berkeley can be too demanding even for the cream of the crop. But for those who make it through, Berkeley’s average ROI is spectacular.

Total cost of attendance: $133,900

20-year ROI: $654,400

Graduate rate: 91%

Average Graduate Debt: $17,116


Brown University

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Brown: it’s an ordinary name, but an extraordinary place. One of the nine pre-Revolution colleges, Brown is an Ivy League research university in Providence, RI. Today Brown is known for its innovative Brown Curriculum, in which students craft their own studies instead of following a set general-education curriculum. Brown prizes critical thinking and self-motivated students, giving them the freedom to decide their own educational paths. Perhaps because they need only the best, Brown is one of the toughest colleges to get in, accepting less than 9% of students. Those who can do it are primed for a life of success and a great return on their investment.

Total cost of attendance: $228,100

20-year ROI: $633,000

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $19,463


Amherst College

Amherst College Main Quad by David EmmermanCC 3.0

Amherst College, a small, private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, has one commitment – education. Like Brown, students at Amherst make their own curriculum, and can even design their own unique majors, with no required general-ed courses. Their faculty to student ratio is an astounding 8 to 1, with classes typically less than fifteen students. That means Amherst offers a mentoring relationship like no other college; they even became the model for Harvard and Columbia’s teaching programs. Because of this excellence, Amherst usually ends up at the top of rankings, and this one is no different – it’s a great value college with an education second to none.

Total cost of attendance: $228,400

20-year ROI: $505,900

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $12,843


Colgate University

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Colgate University is located on a gorgeous rural campus near Hamilton, NY, one of the friendliest towns in America according to Forbes Magazine. That’s pretty much enough in itself, but Colgate’s commitment to progressive values and environmental sustainability make it exceptional. It’s been named one of the best colleges for LGBT students, one of the most physically fit campuses, and one of the best colleges for African-American students. The campus is one of the greenest, literally and environmentally. And its reputation rivals the Ivy League. It has a great ROI, but its value can’t be limited to just that – Colgate is good for the soul.

Total cost of attendance: $223,600

20-year ROI: $543,200

Graduate rate: 90%

Average Graduate Debt: $13,869


Cornell University

Wikimedia Commons by Jeffrey M. Vinocur — GFDL & CC 3.0 & CC 2.5

Cornell University, an Ivy League institution, is located in Ithaca, NY, a quaint city that defines “college town.” Cornell is known not only for the cultural and music scenes of Ithaca, but also as one of the few colleges with Land, Sea, Space, and Sun Grants for research in all of those quarters. It’s on our Top 25 tuition-free colleges, as well, because of its commitment to making sure all accepted students can afford to attend with scholarships and grants.

Total cost of attendance: $227,600

20-year ROI: $560,400

Graduate rate: 93%

Average Graduate Debt: $19,180


Bucknell University

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Bucknell, a small college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is another of the lesser-known but highly-ranked colleges on our list. It regularly ranks highly on lists like Forbes and U.S. News & World Report, and according to PayScale, graduates have a high earning potential. Like Duke or Rice, Bucknell is Ivy League in everything but name, and being less famous gives it an edge as a value college – most readers will not think of it as a great investment, but with its ROI it’s a dark-horse contender.

Total cost of attendance: $225,800

20-year ROI: $589,500

Graduate rate: 90%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,149


Harvey Mudd College

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As colleges go, Harvey Mudd is pretty young, only founded in 1955. But this liberal arts college, with its focus on science, math, and engineering, has made the most of its short history, rising to the top of ranking lists and, according to PayScale, providing graduates with the highest earning potential of any college. Harvey Mudd is a center of research and scholarship, and at one point had the highest proportion of graduates going on to earn Ph.D.s. They’re rigorous – only 88% of students graduate, a low number for colleges at this level. For those who do, the highest earning potential and a flat-out incredible ROI make “Mudd” another word for “value.”

Total cost of attendance: $229,500

20-year ROI: $980,900

Graduate rate: 88%

Average Graduate Debt: $25,265


Vanderbilt University

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Vanderbilt University, a tree-filled haven in the center of Nashville, TN, is a research giant, with a renowned hospital and the First Amendment Center. Founded by northern industrial magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university has more than fulfilled its goal of bringing Ivy League-level education to the south; along with other southern universities Duke and Emory, Vanderbilt can stand toe-to-toe with any New England institution. The ROI is high, and, as you can see on our Top 25 tuition-free colleges list, Vanderbilt makes sure all accepted students can benefit from that earning potential no matter what their income.

Total cost of attendance: $232,600

20-year ROI: $509,100

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $18,543


University of Virginia (UVA)

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Like Penn, UVA is founded by a Founding Father – Thomas Jefferson. It’s one of the best regarded “public Ivies,” a public university with the reputation and quality of the Ivy League. As a public university, UVA has a much lower tuition (for in-state residents) than the private colleges on this list, but their 20-year ROI is equivalent to most of the Ivy Leagues – a graduate from UVA has the potential to make over $550,000 more than they would make without a college degree. Since it’s a public university, students have a higher grad debt than many private equivalents, but the benefits of a major research university and a lower, state-subsidized tuition may tip the scales toward UVA.

Total cost of attendance: $94,300

20-year ROI: $550,700

Graduate rate: 93%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,951


Georgia Institute of Technology

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Georgia Tech might be a surprise to readers, but its place on this list is well-earned. Founded in 1885 to advance science and engineering in the south, Georgia Tech is one of the most productive public research institutions in the US, well-funded by government and corporate partnerships. In-state residents get the benefits of a relatively low tuition coupled with an astoundingly high ROI – $755,600, higher than most Ivy League universities! That’s because Tech offers its students a top-notch education in engineering, science, and technology. It’s the birthplace of many notable startups, and with its location in the always-entrepreneurial Atlanta, GA, graduates have a good chance to network with potentially lucrative employers. It’s a value that can’t be beat for STEM.

Total cost of attendance: $92,250

20-year ROI: $755,600

Graduate rate: 79%

Average Graduate Debt: $23,427


University of California - San Diego

UCSD Tim Hawkinsons Bear via Wikimedia Commons by Leandro Neumann CiuffoCC 2.0

UC San Diego is widely recognized as a Public Ivy, one of the youngest, established in only 1960. It has an impressive host of Nobel Prize and MacArthur Grant winners, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and the Geisel Library, named for Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel. UCSD is also known for its public art. Being California, tuition is a little higher than some of the other public universities on our list, but for it, graduates get an ROI that rivals the Ivy League, for a fraction of the cost.

Total cost of attendance: $122,100

20-year ROI: $549,700

Graduate rate: 86%

Average Graduate Debt: $19,930


Missouri University of Science and Technology

Stonehenge Rolla by Alan BerningCC 2.0

Originally founded as a technical school teaching and researching mining and metallurgy, Missouri S&T is an accomplished research university. S&T is still a leading school for mining-related engineering, but provides an excellent education in any science or engineering field. It also hosts a legendary St. Patrick’s day celebration. Students looking for a value in a STEM concentration will find S&T at the top of the list, with a low tuition rate, a very high ROI, and a comfortably low average debt rate.

Total cost of attendance: $95,620

20-year ROI: $661,000

Graduate rate: 65%

Average Graduate Debt: $7,218


The College of William and Mary

College of William and Mary by Oleg ShpyrkoCC 2.0

One of the original “Public Ivies,” William and Mary is a public research university in historic Williamsburg, VA. As the second-oldest college in the US (after Harvard), W&M educated presidents (including Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia), Supreme Court justices, and Founding Fathers. It’s a highly-regarded all-around university, with top programs in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM. William and Mary has one of the best student-teacher ratios in the US, and, unusually, nearly all courses are taught by professors rather than teaching assistants, meaning students get a close, mentoring relationship with professors comparable to elite private universities. Like UVA or UCSD, students benefit from a low tuition and a high ROI.

Total cost of attendance: $98,400

20-year ROI: $509,300

Graduate rate: 90%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,835


University of Florida - Gainesville

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The University of Florida, located in sunny Gainesville, FL, is a public research university that regularly reaches high up on rankings of public universities. UF is a land-, sea-, and space-grant university, receiving federal funding for research in all those areas. Their medical programs are especially highly ranked, but UF’s STEM program is exceptional altogether. For students who love sports, UF has nationally-ranked teams and a famously intense fandom. It’s also got a spectacular ROI for its low tuition costs, making it a value for anyone who wants to study science in the sun.

Total cost of attendance: $77,600

20-year ROI: $448,600

Graduate rate: 85%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,624


Lafayette College

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Lafayette College is a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, named for the famed General Lafayette, the French officer who became a war hero in the American Revolution. While Lafayette looks like a traditional liberal arts college, with no graduate programs and a small student body, they have a renowned engineering program and a growing reputation in STEM and the social sciences. They’re also half of the oldest football rivalry in the US, against Lehigh University, beginning in 1884. While their cost of attendance is higher than the public universities here, it’s still much lower than the Ivies, with a comparable ROI, making it a fine value.

Total cost of attendance: $220,600

20-year ROI: $605,500

Graduate rate: 91%

Average Graduate Debt: $25,440


Johns Hopkins University

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You’ve heard of Johns Hopkins University. They’re in the news on a daily basis with their discoveries in science, medicine, and engineering. Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876 in Baltimore, Maryland, was innovative from its beginning, becoming a model for other universities with its melding of teaching and research. That legacy has led Johns Hopkins to become one of the world’s most recognizable and respected names, especially in medicine. It’s also the home of Johns Hopkins University Press, the oldest, and one of the leading, university presses in the US. A high ROI brings Johns Hopkins well into Ivy League range as a great college investment.

Total cost of attendance: $229,100

20-year ROI: $555,000

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $24,307


Boston College

Wikimedia Commons by Yelm — CC 3.0 & CC 2.0 & GFDL

Boston College, a private, Jesuit Catholic college in Boston, MA, is a world-class, high-production research institution. It has one of the largest endowments in the US, and uses it to power a research program that puts it at the head of not only Catholic institutions, but liberal arts colleges in general. BC is also the home of the Church in the 21st Century program, a respected call for radical reform in the Catholic church. It has the distinction of being called one of the New Ivies, and its ROI reflects that status.

Total cost of attendance: $224,600

20-year ROI: $492,300

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,598


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The University of Illinois is a public research university, consistently ranked in the top of public universities for their highly-productive research programs. Many of its programs are respected around the world and appear in international rankings, including chemistry, engineering, and business, and it holds the distinction of being named as a Public Ivy. The Urbana-Champaign campus is known for its landscaping and beauty, and, if you’re interested in aviation, is one of the few institutions to have its own airport, which it uses for its aviation program. Its high 20-year ROI should be no surprise.

Total cost of attendance: $113,200

20-year ROI: $541,600

Graduate rate: 84%

Average Graduate Debt: $21,543


University of California - Davis

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UC Davis is a comprehensive, public research university, going up to the doctorate level. Like many of the schools on this list, it also has the Public Ivy reputation, with a wide range of distinctions won by its faculty and graduates, as well as one of the best Veterinary Medicine programs in the US. Its location, Davis, CA, is near enough to Sacramento to offer big-city culture, but Davis is one of the most loved and envied college towns in the US, with an extensive biking infrastructure and a friendly, small-town demeanor: all the amenities of a New England college town with the comfort and beauty of California, and a fantastic return on investment.

Total cost of attendance: $129,900

20-year ROI: $433,900

Graduate rate: 81%

Average Graduate Debt: $16,659


University of California - Irvine

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Another University of California institution, from a system packed with Public Ivies, UC Irvine is the Orange County wing. It’s home of many research programs, as well as one of the best-known and admired creative writing programs in the US. With UC Irvine, students get the high quality education associated with the UC system, but also the eccentricities of Irvine, including a storied system of underground tunnels under its circular campus, and one of the odder college mascots, the Anteater. As with the other UC universities, you know what you’re getting: a top-tier education and a promising ROI.

Total cost of attendance: $119,300

20-year ROI: $488,900

Graduate rate: 86%

Average Graduate Debt: $18,719


University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

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UNC Chapel Hill is the oldest (first chartered) public university in the US, and one of the original institutions named a Public Ivy back in 1985. With that kind of pedigree, it should be no surprise that UNC is one of the best investments in a public university. Its business and medical programs are some of the best in the nation, including the UNC teaching hospital, and it is located in Chapel Hill, one of the nation’s best college towns. Sports fans will immediately recognize the Tar Heels from their legendary basketball teams, including a young Michael Jordan. It’s also on our Top 25 tuition-free colleges list. UNC’s 20-year ROI is not quite at the level of some of the other Public Ivies, but it is still a fantastic value considering the low in-state tuition costs.

Total cost of attendance: $85,290

20-year ROI: $318,100

Graduate rate: 89%

Average Graduate Debt: $17,525


Virginia Tech

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Nobody calls it the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – it’s just Virginia Tech. From its home in the beautiful Appalachian town of Blacksburg, this public, land-grant research university has a respected history of education in engineering, agriculture, and architecture. While VA Tech is not a household name, its science and engineering programs are prolific winners of grant funding and producers of patents. Graduates emerge with expert skills in the sciences, leading to a high project return on investment in relation to its low sticker price.

Total cost of attendance: $97,710

20-year ROI: $560,900

Graduate rate: 83%

Average Graduate Debt: $24,320


University of Notre Dame

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If all you know of Notre Dame is the Fighting Irish, they probably wouldn’t mind, but you’d be missing out on one of the best investments in college. University of Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake, for those of you who aren’t French scholars) is a private, Catholic research university in South Bend, Indiana, known for its School of Architecture and the great beauty of its campus. Its engineering and business programs are also nationally and internationally recognized for excellence. While its tuition is in Ivy League range, so is its ROI, making it an excellent college choice.

Total cost of attendance: $221,200

20-year ROI: $558,200

Graduate rate: 95%

Average Graduate Debt: $30,341


Tufts University

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Tufts University is a private research university located near Boston. Its emphasis on public service and good citizenship make it unique among research universities, and its study-aboard program (including a campus in the French Alps) is exceptional. Less ostentatious than the great universities of New England, Tufts has been called a “Little Ivy” but has developed its reputation intentionally and impressively over the last few decades, to rise to the top of many ranking lists.

Total cost of attendance: $226,300

20-year ROI: $521,500

Graduate rate: 92%

Average Graduate Debt: $24,468


University of Georgia

UGA Arch by April SorrowCC 2.0

The University of Georgia, a public, land- and sea-grant research university, is located in Athens, GA, one of the most beloved college towns in the US. UGA stands alongside UNC and William and Mary as the three oldest public universities in the US, and its business school, law school, and college of veterinary medicine are among the nation’s best. Students often come to Athens, a quaint town with a legendary music scene (home of R.E.M., the B-52s, and the Drive-By Truckers), and never leave. Those who do leave, though, have the potential of a high 20-year return on investment from an excellent, low-cost education.

Total cost of attendance: $85,990

20-year ROI: $316,700

Graduate rate: 83%

Average Graduate Debt: $18,569


University of Maryland - College Park

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The University of Maryland, a public research university in College Park, MD, one of the recent entrants into the Public Ivy rating. For students considering careers in federal government, Maryland is an obvious choice, since its location close to Washington DC has helped the university establish strong ties to government agencies. Because of its research status, Maryland can be found on many national and international lists. Like the other Public Ivies, Maryland combines a low tuition rate with a high ROI for a great college value.

Total cost of attendance: $95,630

20-year ROI: $501,300

Graduate rate: 82%

Average Graduate Debt: $22,696


SUNY - Stony Brook

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State University of New York, Stony Brook, is a public research university on Long Island, New York. As a sea- and space-grant institution, Stony Brook is a highly-regarded university known for its marine research, federal laboratory, and computer science center, home of the Blue Gene supercomputer. It was the first university to test moon rocks, among other major discoveries. A graduate from Stony Brook benefits from low tuition (especially for New York), and a high ROI, since science graduates with a SUNY-SB degree are highly recruited.

Total cost of attendance: $86,880

20-year ROI: $447,600

Graduate rate: 70%

Average Graduate Debt: $20,370


James Madison University (JMU)

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James Madison University, a small, public research university in Harrisonburg, VA, has a sterling reputation for academic excellence. That’s partly because of a very selective admissions process; they only take the top. But it’s also because of a top-flight faculty and research programs, including a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. But JMU also has less easily quantifiable qualities; they’ve been called a “school with a conscience” because of the high proportion of Peace Corps workers they produce, and Newsweek named them one of the US’s happiest schools. Those are things you can’t put a price on, but they add up to an excellent investment and return.

Total cost of attendance: $87,370

20-year ROI: $490,900

Graduate rate: 80%

Average Graduate Debt: $22,128


Binghamton University, SUNY

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Like several other SUNY institutions, Binghamton University has a Public Ivy status and the ROI to back it up. Founded in 1946, It’s taken less than sixty years for Binghamton to grow from a small liberal arts college to a major, Ph.D. granting research university, a fast rise in the world of academia. Its value is one of its proudest points, and Binghamton regularly lands on best-value lists like this one. A high ROI and a low debt rate make Binghamton University a seriously smart investment.

Total cost of attendance: $85,090

20-year ROI: $493,300

Graduate rate: 79%

Average Graduate Debt: $22,634


Wake Forest University

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Wake Forest, a private research university, hasn’t been in Wake Forest, NC, for a long time; it moved to Winston-Salem, NC, back in 1956, but the name has stuck. Wake Forest’s schools of business, law, medicine, and divinity are some of the most acclaimed in the nation, and its undergraduate education is academically rigorous. It has a higher debt rate than many of the schools on this list, but its ROI is in Ivy League territory, making it a great investment anyway.

Total cost of attendance: $223,000

20-year ROI: $529,400

Graduate rate: 87%

Average Graduate Debt: $35,070


George Mason University

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George Mason, also known as Mason, is the largest research university in Virginia. The college, located just 15 miles west of our nation’s capital, gleans much of the culture and wonders a city like D.C. offers. With over 200 degree majors, Mason provides its students many opportunities to plan a professional career while working with nationally recognized professors and leading experts. As a research university, Mason faculty members are well-known leaders in their fields, be it cancer research, climate change, bioscience or international policy, Mason’s connection with the global academic community makes it a premier choice in regards to establishing a network within one’s career path.

Total cost of attendance: $95,730

20-year ROI: $497,300

Graduate rate: 66%

Average Graduate Debt: $23,506


Smith College

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Smith, a private women’s liberal arts college with coed graduate and certificate programs, is located in Northhampton, Massachusetts. A Seven Sisters college, named as being one of 7 liberal arts college in the Northeast that are historically women’s colleges, Smith is the largest sister. Famed alumni include the chef and author Julia Childs, former first lady Barbara Bush, former first lady Nancy Reagan, and poet Sylvia Plath. Not a stranger to top rankings, U.S. News & World Report ranks Smith 19th among Best Liberal Arts in 2014. Another school with sticker shock, but do not be dismayed; financial aid packages are plentiful and the ROI proves this school delivers in regards to value.

Total cost of attendance: $223,300

20-year ROI: $303,600

Graduate rate: 85%

Average Graduate Debt: $22,531


University of Texas (UT) - Austin

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UT Austin, located in the weird oasis of Austin, Texas is a world-class public research university. UT makes various national best rankings annually, most recently Kiplinger’s report and U.S. News & World Report. UT boasts some specific programs most noteworthy in the values department, including its Computer Science, Engineering and Digital Librarianship degrees of study. Austin is the perfect place to study, not just for its highest number of bars and coffee shops per capita, but also because of its value. With a small sticker price to begin with (even for out-of-staters), a graduate of UT will find their mid-career earning potential at over $90k according to a recent analysis by

Total cost of attendance: $106,100

20-year ROI: $497,100

Graduate rate: 79%

Average Graduate Debt: $25,227


Brandeis University

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Do not be deterred by the cost of Brandeis, a private research university located in Waltham, Massachusetts, just 20 minutes outside of Boston. Brandeis was founded as a nonsectarian Jewish institution. Almost named after Albert Einstein, whose involvement in its formation was great, but he himself declined the offer, it became Brandeis, after Louis Brandeis, a Jewish justice of the Supreme Court of the United Sates from 1916 to 1939. A small school with a focus on intense academic rigor, graduates come from diverse ethnic and socio-economics backgrounds. The school prides itself on a small student-faculty ratio to preserve close connections between professors and students. Yes, the sticker price is quite high, but remember, value is not just the price of attendance. The ROI on this school is quite high.

Total cost of attendance: $224,300

20-year ROI: $429,100

Graduate rate: 90%

Average Graduate Debt: $28,590


Emory University

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Emory University is a private university located in Decatur, Georgia, a small suburb of Atlanta. Emory was founded by Methodist in 1836. Referred by Newsweek as one of America’s New Elite Ivies, the college shows up on national rankings nearly every year. With an impressive 3,000 count faculty holding Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Fullbright and Guggenheim fellowships among other notable awards, it’s easy to understand the success of Emory’s graduates. Alumni includes a Vice President of the United States, Ambassadors of the U.S., a Prime Minister of South Korea, congressman, governors and high profile business executives. The University is very connected with the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its students work with the world’s leading global health research experts. Emory’s value is evident in its reputation and its relationship with important ground-breaking research; a degree form this prestigious institution will have you rubbing elbows with accomplished people and influence your personal ROI.

Total cost of attendance: $224,200

20-year ROI: $356,600

Graduate rate: 89%

Average Graduate Debt: $28,706


University of Wisconsin- Madison

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The University of Madison, known to locals as just Madison, is the oldest and largest public university in Wisconsin. An RU/VH (very high research university as categorized in the Carnegie classification of Higher Education), indicates its commitment to graduating top candidates for leading research industries (think STEM careers). In 2014, UW-Madison found itself on several national best value rankings including The Princeton Review and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. With stellar academics, generous financial aid, and relatively low cost of attendance, it’s not hard to see why.

Total cost of attendance: $95,030

20-year ROI: $352,200

Graduate rate: 82%

Average Graduate Debt: $24,140


Clemson University

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Clemson University, situated in Clemson, South Carolina, has an incredibly high Return on Investment (ROI) given its total tuition, especially for in-state students. Graduates of Clemson are finding earning potential similar to Ivy Leagues; now that’s impressive for a public university! With top faculty, small class size and state-of-the-art technology, the 2014 U.S. News & World Report ranked Clemson as 7th of the nation’s most efficient schools, another indication of Clemson being a fine investment.

Total cost of attendance: $111,100

20-year ROI: $430,400

Graduate rate: 82%

Average Graduate Debt: $25,826


University of Colorado- Boulder

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Last on our list, but definitely still a solid value, is the University of Colorado in the beautiful city of Boulder, Colorado. More commonly known as UC Boulder, this college is often found on other rankings, such as Sierra Magazine’s “greenest” school in the nation. As a leader in sustainability, CU-Boulder’s concerns for saving the earth translate to savings for the student. With leading programs in Sustainability and Environmental Studies, graduates are implementing cutting-edge research and landing the jobs that profit well over the course of their career. According to figures compiled by, mid-career graduates can expect a median salary of over $87k.

Total cost of attendance: $209,200

20-year ROI: $302,700

Graduate rate: 68%

Average Graduate Debt: $22,683