As a college-bound student putting together a college wish list, you’ve probably noticed that private colleges tend to have high price tags. Maybe you’ve even decided that any private college is too far outside your budget to consider.
Indeed, the average annual tuition at a private college was $33,480 in 2016-17, according to the College Board Annual Survey of Colleges. Considering the average annual tuition at a four-year public college was $9,650 for in-state students and $24,930 for out-of-state students, it’s clear most private college students paid more.
Many of them likely relied on private student loans for their private education. In fact, graduates of private colleges ended up with more student debt: $32,300 on average, compared to the average debt of $25,550 for graduates of public colleges.
However, according to new Student Loan Hero college rankings, some nonprofit private colleges are worth a second look — even for cost-conscious college applicants. If you’ve been dreaming of the private-college experience on a public-college budget, start your search with this list of the 20 most cost-effective private colleges.
20 most affordable private colleges
The Student Loan Hero rankings highlighted private colleges that were affordable exceptions thanks to low tuition, subsidies, scholarships, and financial aid.
Among the top 20 private colleges offering the best deals for undergraduates, average graduate indebtedness was low. Students who attended these private colleges could expect to borrow less than even the $25,550 average for graduates of public colleges.
Plus, private colleges on this list charged tuition and fees that were often on par with what in-state students paid at public colleges. And these 20 private colleges’ costs were well below the typical tuition public colleges charged out-of-state students.
Lastly, these private colleges offered substantial financial aid awards that helped many students offset their total costs of attendance, from tuition to room and board. These awards contributed to lower net prices of attendance at top private colleges.
Here’s a look at the annual tuition costs, annual net prices (cost of attendance after financial aid was applied), and average student debt graduates left with for the top 20 most affordable private colleges.
1. College of the Ozarks in Missouri
- Annual tuition and fees: $18,730
- Annual net price: $13,567
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $5,339
- Students with educational debt: 7 percent
2. Davis College in New York
- Annual tuition and fees: $13,540
- Annual net price: $12,690
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $5,360
- Students with educational debt: 22 percent
3. Brigham Young University in Utah
- Annual tuition and fees: $5,150
- Annual net price: $12,900
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $15,720
- Students with educational debt: 27 percent
4. Amridge University in Alabama
- Annual tuition and fees: $6,900
- Annual net price: $4,613
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $10,500
- Students with educational debt: 63 percent
5. Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky
- Annual tuition and fees: $11,460
- Annual net price: $13,405
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $10,591
- Students with educational debt: 42 percent
6. Berea College in Kentucky
- Annual tuition and fees: $24,870
- Annual net price: $3,125
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $7,928
- Students with educational debt: 68 percent
7. Barclay College in Kansas
- Annual tuition and fees: $14,390
- Annual net price: $17,392
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $7,220
- Students with educational debt: 72 percent
8. The Baptist College of Florida
- Annual tuition and fees: $10,000
- Annual net price: $10,360
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $17,174
- Students with educational debt: 63 percent
9. Calvary Bible College and Theological Seminary in Missouri
- Annual tuition and fees: $11,320
- Annual net price: $13,133
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $15,498
- Students with educational debt: 63 percent
10. Princeton University in New Jersey
- Annual tuition and fees: $43,450
- Annual net price: $17,901
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $8,577
- Students with educational debt: 16 percent
11. Alaska Pacific University in Alaska
- Annual tuition and fees: $19,610
- Annual net price: $19,536
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $8,922
- Students with educational debt: 63 percent
12. Blue Mountain College in Mississippi
- Annual tuition and fees: $10,852
- Annual net price: $11,182
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $18,307
- Students with educational debt: 70 percent
13. Webb Institute in New York
- Annual tuition and fees: $46,000
- Annual net price: $18,149
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $10,000
- Students with educational debt: 20 percent
14. Piedmont International University in North Carolina
- Annual tuition and fees: $9,580
- Annual net price: $14,981
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $19,784
- Students with educational debt: 69 percent
15. Columbia College in Missouri
- Annual tuition and fees: $8,240
- Annual net price: $17,891
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $23,515
- Students with educational debt: 53 percent
16. Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
- Annual tuition and fees: $15,604
- Annual net price: $15,196
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $18,643
- Students with educational debt: 64 percent
17. Mercy College of Ohio
- Annual tuition and fees: $12,530
- Annual net price: $16,744
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $18,652
- Students with educational debt: 69 percent
18. Columbia International University in South Carolina
- Annual tuition and fees: $20,430
- Annual net price: $17,942
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $18,786
- Students with educational debt: 51 percent
19. Heritage Bible College
- Annual tuition and fees: $9,168
- Annual net price: $13,412
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $15,000
- Students with educational debt: 100 percent
20. Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Tennessee
- Annual tuition and fees: $20,790
- Annual net price: $28,632
- Average indebtedness of graduates: $15,000
- Students with educational debt: 47 percent
5 strategies for finding the best affordable private colleges
The cost of attending a private college can keep away students who are on a budget. Still, as a student, you might dream of attending a private college for a variety of reasons, such as:
- A unique college major or top-rated program that matches your goals
- Academic rigor, smaller class sizes, and favorable student-to-instructor ratios
- A unique campus, culture, and community
If you know a private college more closely matches the college experience you hope to have, don’t overlook it as an option. Follow these tips so you can find an affordable private college and avoid leaving with a large amount of student debt.
1. Search for affordable private colleges that are a good fit
As you think about which college you want to attend, keep the whole picture in view. Although it’s important to consider tuition costs, make sure you consider other factors as well.
For example, a religious private college might not be a great fit for a nonbeliever, no matter the price tag. On the other hand, a studious or conservative student might prefer to avoid private universities with reputations as party schools.
Visiting colleges can be a great way to see campuses in person and get face-to-face time with students and university officials.
2. Widen your search to private colleges outside your state
As you consider colleges, it’s smart to include in-state public universities in your search. They can help you lower costs by allowing you to live closer to home — or even with family if there’s a college in your hometown.
But you might prefer to attend college farther afield, perhaps to assert your independence or because in-state choices are a poor fit for your academic and professional goals.
When you’re facing out-of-state tuition costs, the prices of private colleges seem more reasonable. Unlike public schools, private colleges don’t have different tuition rates based on residency. So whether a private college is in your state or across the country, its location won’t affect your costs.
As you search for colleges, widen your survey to include private colleges farther away.
3. Check graduation rates and career outcomes
Private colleges can improve your chances of academic and career success. Six-year graduation rates were 66 percent at private colleges in 2016, compared to 59 percent at public colleges, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics.
But just like you shouldn’t assume a private college is too expensive, you also shouldn’t assume it has rigorous academic standards or high-performing programs.
Ask colleges you’re interested in attending for statistics on the performance and success of the student body, including graduation rates, job placements, and average starting salaries. This information will give you a clearer picture of which college is most likely to set you on your desired career path.
Also, it’s probably best to steer clear of for-profit private colleges altogether. These colleges focus on making a buck, not offering the best educational experience to students. For-profit colleges often land students deep in debt and deliver poor job outcomes and decreased earning potential.
4. Pursue financial aid, grants, and scholarships
It pays off to maintain a focus on financial aid throughout the college admissions and acceptance process. To narrow down your private-college search, check for financial aid policies and programs that match your situation and needs.
Students from low-income families might seek out private colleges with policies that match 100 percent of demonstrated need. Berea College, for example, offers a Tuition Promise Scholarship that covers 100 percent of any tuition that is unpaid after applying other financial aid and scholarships.
Attending one of these schools can give you the peace of mind that, between financial and institutional aid, all costs will be covered.
Perhaps you come from a middle-income family and are unlikely to receive many need-based grants but have above-average academic records and test scores. In this case, private colleges can be the smarter choice. They have greater discretion (and larger budgets) to offer merit-based aid than public colleges, making it easier for you to bank on your academic performance to finance your education.
5. Compare your real costs at each college
Lastly, you won’t know for sure which college is the most affordable until you receive your financial aid award letter from each college you’re considering.
If you’ve filed a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and received acceptance letters from colleges, the next step is to wait for financial award letters. These documents outline the financial aid packages colleges are offering you.
Each college will list grants and scholarships as well as other forms of aid, including work-study and student loans. Comparing these offers lets you figure out the net cost of attending each college, which can help you decide which one offers the best value.
Financial aid award letters typically arrive in plenty of time for students to compare offers, make their choice, and secure a spot by the college’s enrollment deadline. Take some time to understand each offer, including which aid is “free” and which aid will need to be repaid. Then you can see how the financial aid award letters match up and which colleges offer the best value without breaking your budget.
Give private colleges a chance
If you end up writing off an entire category of colleges, you could miss out on a unique experience and the generous financial aid packages many private colleges offer.
These new college rankings proved that private colleges can be a cost-effective option. Students can afford to attend a private college and still graduate with less student debt.
Any well-rounded college search should include private universities. These schools offer unique experiences, individualized assistance, and forms of financial aid many students would struggle to find at public colleges.
You won’t know if a private college could be a smart and cost-savvy fit until you investigate and compare costs for yourself.
Methodology: Student Loan Hero surveyed data for 670 private colleges and ranked institutions based on the factors of affordability and student debt.
Private colleges were ranked based on four factors: (1) tuition and fees for 2015-16 and (2) the 2014-15 estimates of net price, which is the cost of attendance after the average financial aid package is applied to costs, both sourced from the most recent data available from the National Center of Educational Statistics, and (3) the average indebtedness of a 2015 graduate from the college and (4) the proportion of students graduating with any student debt, both sourced from the most recent data from the Institute for College Access & Success Project on Student Debt.
Tuition and fees, net price, and proportion of students graduating with student debt were weighted equally (at one-fifth of the ranking score). The average indebtedness was weighted twice as heavily (at two-fifths of the ranking score). The top-ranked 100 private colleges are listed below.
|Rank||Name of institution||State||2015-16 tuition and fees||2014-15 net price||Average indebtedness||Portion of students with debt|
|1||College of the Ozarks||MO||$18,730||$13,567||$5,339||7%|
|3||Brigham Young University-Provo||UT||$5,150||$12,900||$15,720||27%|
|5||Alice Lloyd College||KY||$11,460||$13,405||$10,591||42%|
|8||The Baptist College of Florida||FL||$10,000||$10,360||$17,174||63%|
|9||Calvary Bible College and Theological Seminary||MO||$11,320||$13,133||$15,498||63%|
|11||Alaska Pacific University||AK||$19,610||$19,536||$8,922||63%|
|12||Blue Mountain College||MS||$10,852||$11,182||$18,307||70%|
|14||Piedmont International University||NC||$9,580||$14,981||$19,784||69%|
|17||Mercy College of Ohio||OH||$12,530||$16,744||$18,652||69%|
|18||Columbia International University||SC||$20,430||$17,942||$18,786||51%|
|19||Heritage Bible College||NC||$9,168||$13,412||$15,000||100%|
|20||Watkins College of Art, Design & Film||TN||$20,790||$28,632||$15,000||47%|
|21||Maranatha Baptist University||WI||$13,940||$18,767||$20,461||63%|
|26||Martin Luther College||MN||$13,570||$17,676||$23,636||62%|
|28||Williams Baptist College||AR||$16,430||$14,955||$21,121||76%|
|32||Tennessee Wesleyan College||TN||$22,900||$10,754||$21,644||76%|
|33||Thomas More College of Liberal Arts||NH||$20,400||$15,489||$23,452||65%|
|36||Soka University of America||CA||$30,642||$12,295||$18,954||70%|
|38||Cardinal Stritch University||WI||$27,540||$18,417||$12,888||90%|
|39||Ave Maria University||FL||$18,479||$18,800||$25,702||59%|
|41||Thomas Aquinas College||CA||$24,500||$19,736||$16,901||80%|
|43||Oklahoma Baptist University||OK||$24,000||$17,320||$24,451||58%|
|45||Calumet College of Saint Joseph||IN||$17,000||$11,218||$23,465||90%|
|46||Bryan College — Dayton||TN||$23,300||$16,153||$16,992||93%|
|47||Saint Joseph’s College — New York||NY||$24,113||$15,702||$26,595||57%|
|49||Villa Maria College||NY||$20,260||$10,522||$22,658||91%|
|50||Trinity College of Florida||FL||$15,690||$18,731||$29,231||58%|
|51||John Brown University||AR||$24,468||$19,943||$23,695||60%|
|53||Ouachita Baptist University||AR||$24,120||$19,102||$26,648||51%|
|58||San Diego Christian College||CA||$28,470||$27,243||$19,212||58%|
|63||Saint Augustine’s University||NC||$17,890||$21,503||$19,500||93%|
|64||Oklahoma Christian University||OK||$19,890||$18,758||$28,142||61%|
|65||University of Mount Olive||NC||$18,400||$14,654||$23,766||90%|
|66||University of the Cumberlands||KY||$21,000||$16,515||$25,198||76%|
|68||Young Harris College||GA||$28,012||$16,193||$23,733||69%|
|76||Washington and Lee University||VA||$46,417||$21,379||$21,683||34%|
|80||University of Pikeville||KY||$18,840||$17,653||$27,645||76%|
|81||Chaminade University of Honolulu||HI||$21,780||$21,077||$27,439||64%|
|82||Flagler College — St. Augustine||FL||$16,830||$21,804||$28,897||67%|
|83||Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art||NY||$42,650||$40,617||$17,338||22%|
|84||California Institute of Technology||CA||$45,390||$23,213||$20,677||39%|
|85||The Master’s College and Seminary||CA||$30,920||$24,397||$22,417||59%|
|86||Marymount California University||CA||$34,680||$25,886||$17,705||67%|
|87||Mount Carmel College of Nursing||OH||$12,180||$14,524||$32,455||78%|
|88||Webber International University||FL||$24,792||$23,783||$23,421||69%|
|89||Lancaster Bible College||PA||$19,980||$21,300||$24,681||79%|
|93||Lindsey Wilson College||KY||$23,162||$16,100||$26,249||78%|
|99||Xavier University of Louisiana||LA||$22,349||$16,385||$24,570||87%|
|100||University of Great Falls||MT||$22,170||$18,336||$26,328||77%|
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