For many college applicants, schools with smaller student bodies are ideal. Small colleges can provide students with more opportunities to lead, learn, and get involved than they’d get on a much larger campus.
While the experience at a small college has a lot of offer, it can come at a price. With fewer students paying tuition, small colleges often have higher prices per student.
That doesn’t have to be the case. Our new rankings reveal the 20 most affordable small colleges in the U.S.
Key findings: Ranking small colleges in the U.S.
Smaller colleges cost $5,470 more in tuition and fees per year. Smaller colleges’ tuition and fees averaged $27,796 for 2016, compared with the average tuition and fees of $22,326 across all colleges, based on Peterson’s data.
The 20 most affordable small colleges have tuition and fees that are all $7,000 or less. This means the most affordable colleges offer savings of $20,750 in tuition and fees compared to average small colleges. Three of the top colleges even have tuition-free initiatives that effectively put these costs at $0.
Public colleges are the best option for affordable tuition. Of these 20 most affordable colleges, 17 are state and local public colleges. Interestingly, seven of the cheapest small colleges are in Oklahoma.
The 20 cheapest small colleges
With smaller student populations, each student can have their own place and role on campus. But first, they have to figure out how to pay for college.
As mentioned, a preference for a small college could carry an average premium of $5,470 a year, adding $21,880 to the total cost of a four-year degree. But if that’s the average, which small colleges are the outliers still offering affordable tuition and fees?
To find out, we surveyed tuition, fees, and average student debt at 626 colleges with graduating classes of 500 students or less. Here are the top 20 cheapest small colleges in the U.S.
1. College of the Ozarks in Missouri
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,512
Annual tuition and fees: $430
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $0
A private religious university, the College of the Ozarks doesn’t charge tuition. Instead, students work on campus to help cover the costs of education. The college also offers need-based scholarships.
The college discourages students from taking out student loans, and just 7% of its students graduated with educational debt in 2015-16. As of 2017-18, the Colloeg of the Ozarks reports that its graduates had zero student loan debt.
2. Berea College in Kentucky
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,665
Annual tuition and fees: $570
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $7,062
Berea College is another private college that helps students pay no tuition. The Tuition Promise Scholarship covers all remaining tuition costs that a student faces after other aid and scholarships are applied. The college’s site estimates the scholarship’s value at more than $155,000 over four years.
While about two-thirds of the college’s students rely on loans to help cover room, board, or other educational costs, the low average balance reflects a great deal this college offers.
3. Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky
Undergraduate enrollment: 599
Annual tuition and fees: $2,050
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $10,714
At No. 3 is another Kentucky private college, Alice Lloyd, that’s tuition-free. It offers a tuition guarantee that students will pay nothing out of pocket for their tuition costs for up to 10 semesters.
There is a catch. Students only get the guarantee if they are from the school’s “service area,” which includes 108 neighboring counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
4. York College in New York
Undergraduate enrollment: 8,258
Annual tuition and fees: $6,747
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $4,614
The first public college on this list, York College is part of the City University of New York, or CUNY, network. In-state residents pay low tuition of just $6,330 a year.
Because of this, just 6% of the college’s graduates have student loans. Those that do borrow boast the lowest average student loan balances on this list.
5. Dixie State University in Utah
Undergraduate enrollment: 8,993
Annual tuition and fees: $5,022
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $15,882
Another small public college to make the list, Dixie State University comes in at No. 5. These low costs and affordable living expenses in St. George, Utah, mean students can keep costs low and limit borrowing. Plus, just 38% of 2016 graduates left Dixie State with student debt.
6. New Mexico Highlands University
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,181
Annual tuition and fees: $5,550
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $17,312
For students looking for more one-on-one attention, New Mexico Highlands University delivers. Located in Las Vegas, New Mexico, this college’s class sizes are as small as 15 to 35 student for first-year courses. This can help students get big value out of these already-low costs of attending college.
7. New College of Florida
Undergraduate enrollment: 861
Annual tuition and fees: $6,916
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $15,173
Located in Sarasota, Florida, this small school has fewer than 1,000 students and is called the “Honors College of Florida.” It has more rigorous courses that will challenge students, with opportunities for unique, real-world research.
8. Southern Utah University
Undergraduate enrollment: 8,407
Annual tuition and fees: $6,530
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $16,892
Located in Cedar City, Utah, Southern Utah University is a midsized school that brings together the individual focus of a small college with the lively campus life of a large one. Thanks to its affordable tuition, the university helps half its students graduate without loans, and those who do borrow have balances far below the average.
9. College of Coastal Georgia
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,529
Annual tuition and fees: $4,434
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,455
The College of Coastal Georgia has the lowest tuition and fees of any college on this list that actually charges out-of-pocket tuition.
Students here do borrow higher student loan balances, with the average over $25,000. But savvy students can take advantage of the college’s 40-plus scholarships, federal student aid, and other funding to limit student debt.
10. Cameron University in Oklahoma
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,444
Annual tuition and fees: $5,970
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,019
Cameron University is a small public college that focuses on both academic and career success.
It even offers “The Cameron University Guarantee” that students will be prepared for their careers. If a future employer finds gaps in a graduate’s education, the college will provide additional education at no cost.
11. Rogers State University in Oklahoma
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,889
Annual tuition and fees: $7,000
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $16,164
While Rogers State University has a recognized online college program for distance students, it has its flagship campus in Claremore, Oklahoma, as well as campuses in Bartlesville and Pryor.
To help students further afford its already-low costs, the university also provides a range of merit- and need-based scholarships.
12. East Central University in Oklahoma
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,428
Annual tuition and fees: $6,279
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $19,170
Another Oklahoma college, East Central University’s staff and instructors advise students and help them get the exact college experience they want. This college also costs $3,000 less per year than the national average for public four-year schools, according to College Board.
13. Emporia State University in Kansas
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,702
Annual tuition and fees: $6,178
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,433
A small school in Kansas, this public college’s liberal arts and teaching programs are among its most popular. Emporia State University also offers a variety of certificate and licensure programs to help students and professionals build their resumes.
14. The University of Texas of the Permian Basin
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,478
Annual tuition and fees: $7,060
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $17,578
For college applicants interested in a degree that will get them hired, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin delivers. This college is often among the top five in Texas for both employment and graduate school placements, according to the school’s site.
15. Southeastern Oklahoma State University
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,132
Annual tuition and fees: $6,450
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,983
On top of its already-low tuition costs, Southeastern Oklahoma State University provides primarily merit-based scholarships to help students pay for school. Along with the usual perks of small colleges, this makes the university a worthy destination for standout students.
16. Dickinson State University in North Dakota
Undergraduate enrollment: 1,381
Annual tuition and fees: $5,339
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,936
Next is Dickinson State University, which boasts a student-faculty ratio of 10-to-1. This small college provides students with personalized support, as well as the opportunity to earn anything from a nursing degree to a bachelor’s degree in accounting or music.
17. University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma
Undergraduate enrollment: 850
Annual tuition and fees: $6,270
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $22,760
With fewer than 1,000 students and a trimester-based schedule, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma provides a unique educational environment.
The college also offers direct assistance to students. Incoming freshmen are automatically evaluated for institutional scholarships. In 2016, 76% of the college’s freshmen received such a scholarship.
18. Southwestern Oklahoma State University
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,510
Annual tuition and fees: $6,690
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $21,282
With over 100 fields of study, Southwestern Oklahoma State University is a small college that offers the choices and opportunities of a bigger campus. Its low costs also make it a standout for value, with a net price that beats comparable schools by $1,000 a year, according to the school’s site.
19. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,514
Annual tuition and fees: $5,816
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,263
This North Carolina university is a smart choice for studying liberal arts at an affordable cost. The college offers low tuition, and graduates leave with student loan balances that they can manage as they pursue the careers they want.
20. Northeastern State University in Oklahoma
Undergraduate enrollment: 6,923
Annual tuition and fees: $6,207
Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $23,840
Founded as a Cherokee Nation school and later purchased by Oklahoma, Northeastern State University is a state college rich in local history with a traditional college atmosphere.
Students can receive more individualized instruction since 84% of undergrad courses have fewer than 30 students. Popular majors at this college include education, biology, psychology, accounting, and business.
How to choose an affordable small college
Smaller schools have a lot to offer students, from intimate classrooms to charming campuses. Fortunately, you don’t have to face sky-high costs or take on federal or private student loans to get the small-college experience. Follow these tips to find a small college that fits your budget.
Look stateside first. If you want to attend a smaller school, you should first check out public colleges in your state. All the tuition and fees estimates in these rankings assume the student is a resident paying in-state tuition. That’s a big reason why 17 of the 20 most affordable colleges are public, regional colleges, as this tuition is subsidized for residents.
Attend a community college and transfer. Many community colleges have the same small class sizes as smaller four-year colleges and are often comparable in quality of education and academic rigor. Completing your first 60 credits at a city or community college and transferring saves an average of $11,377 over attending just a four-year college.
Apply to your top picks and compare aid packages. Don’t let sticker shock or high tuition keep you from applying to smaller colleges. These colleges often have fewer students vying for resources, and might be more likely to offer scholarships or other aid to attract top students. Apply to several colleges of interest so that you can compare offers in your financial aid award letters. You can then decide on a college knowing exactly what you’d pay out of pocket (or borrow) to attend each one.
Keeping cost top of mind when choosing a school can have a huge impact on what your education costs, and how much student debt you owe. Prioritize affordable colleges now, and you’ll benefit greatly when you’re repaying student loans.
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