When looking at the lists of cheapest colleges that are available on the Web, the most striking thing is how dissimilar they all seem to be. I checked out a handful of different sites that all purport to rank “THE cheapest” public colleges in the U.S. They all compiled their lists in the last year and all claim to derive their data from the same source: the Department of Education’s College Navigator, which assimilates data collected by the Cebter for Education Statistics. But none of the lists are the same.
The variables that cause the differences range from in-state versus out-of-state tuition, including or not including fees, to online versus traditional delivery and examination of total cost of attendance (including transportation and living expenses) as opposed to only tuition and fees. Another factor that made a difference is whether two year community colleges were included.
One list I looked at, for example, was front-loaded with American Indian tribal colleges and community colleges in California because they used resident tuition and included two-year colleges in the list. This is a completely valid way of looking at the affordability of colleges. However, in order to speak to a broader audience, which we are trying to do here, it’s a little limiting.
So, here are the criteria for the Frugal Dad list of cheap colleges. First, all colleges included will offer bachelors degrees. No junior or community colleges are included because they are intrinsically affordable and can be found locally. Your local community college is a fantastic place to earn a couple years worth of college credit at a reasonable price. You will also, in the vast majority of instances, get a good solid education in the classes you choose. Most public universities and many private schools will accept transfer credit toward degrees for credits you earn at accredited community colleges. Use them. They’re great resources. But they are not on this list.
Next, because all non-fixed costs (i.e. anything but tuition and fees) vary too greatly, they will not be considered separately in our ranking. Use the College Navigator tool to see estimates of the variable costs at the schools listed below. Because we’re not even going to think about them. The difference in cost of living varies too greatly from place to place for us to reasonably include it in our simple little list. Instead, we’ll leave all the magic number crunching to the Department of Education (and offer a nod to the Huffington Post, which put together a similar list last year using the same data).
The figure we’ll be using here is the NCES average net institutional price. This number works well here because it uses data from all students — resident and non-resident, alike — at a school to determine the average out of pocket cost of a college. The average net institutional price, according to the Dept. of Education, is defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as
“the average yearly price actually charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students receiving student aid at an institution of higher education after deducting such aid.” Essentially, net price moves beyond an institution’s “sticker price” and provides students and families with an idea of how much a first-time, full-time undergraduate student who was awarded aid pays to attend a particular institution after grant or scholarship aid is subtracted from the published cost of attendance.
The average net price, therefore, can be considerably lower (as in the cases of the schools listed below) than the college’s posted tuition rates. The colleges that have the lowest average net institutional prices (ANIP) in the country are:
Macon State College, Macon/Warner Robins, GA. ANIP: $0
South Texas College, McAllen, TX. ANIP: $325
Texas A&M International University, Laredo, TX. ANIP: $1,255
Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC. ANIP: $1,442
University of Texas – Pan American, Edinburg, TX. ANIP: $1,482
Indian River State College, Fort Pierce, FL. ANIP: $1,756
California State University – Dominguez Hills, Carson, CA. ANIP: $2,018
University of Texas – El Paso, El Paso, TX. ANIP: $2,446
Edison State College, Fort Myers, FL. ANIP: $3,326
Palm Beach State College, Lake Worth, FL. ANIP: $3,486