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Top 10 Best Colleges With Low Student Debt: Kiplinger

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A college education is at once the goal and the bane of students who are aiming for a career that will provide them with the elements of the American dream: the chance to do better than their parents, to buy a home and raise a family. 

But with the level of college debt rampant these days, that’s not an easy goal to achieve. Tuition has skyrocketed, making it nearly impossible for young people to complete a degree without a crushing load of debt, multiple jobs or assistance from family — sometimes all three. 

In fact, according to a Goldman Sachs report, student loan debt is as big as the entire U.S. junk bond market, at $1.3 trillion. (If you ask the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, however, it actually stands at $1.4 trillion.) And according to a CBS Moneywatch report, members of the class of 2016 graduated with an average debt load of $37,173, up 6% from the debt load of the previous year’s graduating class, which was certainly bad enough at $35,051. 

Even those who are desperate to economize on tuition and fees, though, need to look for the best education they can afford. To that end, Kiplinger took a look at the 300 colleges on its list of best-value colleges and came up with 10 that not only provide a good education to their students but don’t send them into the world with less money than the little match girl. 

Here are the 10 colleges that Kiplinger says provide the best value without crushing their grads under a mountain of tuition debt:

CUNY City College. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) 

10. Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY)

Average debt at graduation: $14,383

Undergraduate enrollment: 16,326

Total annual out-of-state cost: $34,724 ($23,854 in-state)

Students who borrow: 16%

Located in Queens, New York, Queens College has an admission rate of 41% — pretty good odds, considering some of the other schools on the list.

Families of prospective out-of-state students would do well to remember that New York is an expensive place to live, never mind go to college. Even though families are putting aside more money for college, a Fidelity study finds that they still aren’t saving enough; part of the problem, no doubt, is that they’re underestimating how much the great educational venture will cost. 

So even though Queens College is cheaper than most, with respect to how much debt new grads will carry, they might want to keep reading.

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. (Photo: Bloomberg)

9. Yale University

Average debt at graduation: $13,625

Undergraduate enrollment: 5,477

Total annual cost: $70,570

Students who borrow: 14%

Yale is pretty remarkable for the low level of debt its grads carry, considering its cost. But a couple of things to consider about this New Haven, Connecticut college is that it only takes 6% of applicants — and it’s as determined to help them succeed as they are to graduate. Ivy League colleges overall make sure that qualified students can afford their education, and Yale does so with need-based aid that covers 100% of qualifying students’ financial need. 

Still, thanks to that very low admission rate, it would pay to seek out the best ways to save before Yale becomes a choice. One way is through a 529 plan, where again, you’ll want to find the best available.

Wellesley College (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

8. Wellesley College

Average debt at graduation: $13,415

Undergraduate enrollment: 2,347

Total annual cost: $67,784

Students who borrow: 48% 

Wellesley’s financial assistance isn’t based on merit; instead, the school awards qualifying students an average of $45,178 in need-based aid. That cuts the cost by close to two-thirds, and graduates leave school with an average of less than half the debt level for four-year private college grads.

Considering that 35% of the money used to pay for a typical family’s college student tuition comes from scholarships and grants, this sounds like a pretty good deal.

Hunter College in New York City. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

7. Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY)

Average debt at graduation: $13,000

Undergraduate enrollment: 16,723

Total annual out-of-state cost: $27,869 ($16,999 in-state)

Students who borrow: 71% 

Hunter College, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, manages to turn out grads who have debt levels less than half the national average, despite the fact that so many of its students borrow to get their degrees.

Haverford College. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

6. Haverford College

Average debt at graduation: $13,000

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,268

Total annual cost: $71,614

Students who borrow: 29% 

Philadelphia’s Haverford is picky — admitting just 21% of applicants — but once accepted, 98% of students live on campus, along with 61% of the faculty. And since it attracts top students from all over the country, it’s perhaps surprising that average graduating debt is so low — $13,000, compared with the average of $32,000 for grads of private four-year colleges. 

That’s good, since it could keep them from joining the “average” student loan borrower’s profile: older, deeper in debt and probably behind on loan payments, with 16% owing more than $50,000. In addition, half of student loan borrowers are over 34 when they start to repay their loans — that number has doubled since 2003 — and the share of borrowers who haven’t managed to get those loan balances down at all after five years in repayment has also doubled, from 16% in 2008 to 30% in 2016.

Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ.  

5. Ramapo College of New Jersey

Average debt at graduation: $11,275

Undergraduate enrollment: 5,762

Total annual out-of-state cost: $36,963 ($27,829 in-state)

Students who borrow: 49% 

Ramapo is a public New Jersey college that has a higher admission rate than many of the schools on this list, at 53%, and has a student-to-faculty ratio of 18 to 1. And while its out-of-state tuition is higher than the national average for public four-year schools, close to half of Ramapo attendees get financial aid. 

Still, if parents don’t have the money, whether through savings or income, and tuition money has to be borrowed, an Ipsos Public Affairs study finds that students do more of the borrowing than parents do. Either way, that debt is going to be there for a while.

The University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons) 

4. University of North Georgia

Average debt at graduation: $10,062

Undergraduate enrollment: 17,704

Total annual out-of-state cost: $32,978 ($19,166 in-state)

Students who borrow: 46% 

Established in 2013, the relatively new university is the result of the consolidation of two other schools that were part of the state’s university system: North Georgia College & State University and Gainesville State College. 

Out-of-state students can rejoice (well, sort of); their cost falls well beneath the national average for out-of-staters attending four-year institutions. In addition, its graduation debt level looks manageable — certainly when compared with the average grad’s burden.

Princeton University Campus.

3. Princeton University

Average debt at graduation: $8,908

Undergraduate enrollment: 5,400

Total annual cost: $61,140

Students who borrow: 18% 

Don’t let that annual cost give you sticker shock; Princeton has a generous financial aid policy. In 2001, Princeton became the first four-year undergraduate institution to offer no-loan financial aid packages that allow students to graduate debt-free. 

It’s not easy to get in. But considering that interest rates for federal student loans are on the rise, it might very much be worth the effort.

Baruch College’s Newman Library and School of Public Affairs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Baruch College of the City University of New York (CUNY)

Average debt at graduation: $7,915

Undergraduate enrollment: 15,210

Total annual out-of-state cost: $39,395 ($25,525 in-state)

Students who borrow: 30% 

Manhattan’s Baruch College will allow students and grads to have easy access to internship and job possibilities not just on Wall Street but at many corporations’ global headquarters. That proximity can stand grads in good stead not just during college, but in the future. 

Approximately 56% of students get financial aid from Baruch, and will find themselves among an internationally diverse pool of students — with opportunities to study not just in the arts and sciences, but also the business school and public and international affairs.

Berea College. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

1. Berea College

Average debt at graduation: $7,062

Undergraduate enrollment: 1,665

Total annual cost: $7,234

Students who borrow: 65% 

Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, might look like a sure bet to those scanning only the bottom line, but the school only accepts students who have limited economic resources. It has a no-tuition promise, with its students receiving nearly $100,000 over the course of four years. And that doesn’t include additional financial aid for housing and other living expenses. 

But be prepared to work. Berea, which was established in 1855 by abolitionists and radical reformers, is one of only seven federally recognized work colleges in the nation. Students may not have to pay tuition, but they are required to work — on campus—for 10 to 15 hours a week.

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