ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled Saved to Favorites.
Articles / Applying to College / Report Ranks the Top States for Higher Education

Feb. 27, 2020

Report Ranks the Top States for Higher Education

Report Ranks the Top States for Higher Education

Kevin Dunlap/Unsplash

Where you go to college can make a difference. The key word is "can." While it's true that you can be a dud Ivy League grad, you can also be a world-class achiever from community college. In fact, there are many highly successful -- and happy -- people out there who never went to college or dropped out. Dropouts include Bill "Microsoft" Gates, Muriel "First Woman of Finance" Siebert and Mark "Facebook" Zuckerberg.


Let's hope that you stick with college, though, and make it all the way through. Right now as we approach spring, high school sophomores and juniors are thinking about, among other things, where to go to college. The college search can be frustrating, conflicted by personal prejudices and misinformation. However, there are statistics that could help to focus your search if you are willing to consider the results of certain studies.

One such study that may be of value to you comes from SmartAsset's Ben Geier, in his just-released Top States for Higher Education – 2020 Edition. Geier says:

Because getting a higher education is important in many professional fields, it can drastically change a worker's earning potential and therefore his or her ability to save. According to 2017 statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly salary for someone with a bachelor's degree was $1,173, while it was only $800 for a person with just a high school diploma. Going to college isn't cheap, of course. There are some states, though, where it is more affordable than others and offers a greater ROI.

To find the best states for students seeking higher education, SmartAsset analyzed data from all 50 states across the following five metrics: undergraduate graduation rate, average net price, student-faculty ratio, 20-year return on investment and in-state attendance rate. For details on our data sources and how we put all the information together to create our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section

That term "ROI" looms large for aspiring collegians. With the ever-increasing, almost astronomical cost of college forcing many (if not most) college students to mortgage their futures through student loans, it's critical to consider schools that give the most bang for those tuition bucks.

East Coast States Rank High

Getting right to it, what are the key findings of this study?

- East Coast states perform well. While the top 10 of the study includes states from all four main Census regional divisions -- the Northeast, the Midwest, the South and the West – six of the top 10 states for higher education are located on the East Coast: Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina and New York.

- Consistency at the top. Eight of this year's top 10 states ranked among the 10 best states for higher education in all six editions of this study. The two exceptions are Indiana and Connecticut, which have finished 16th or higher over the past six years.

Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey Top the List

Looking at the top ten in Smart Asset's graphic, we see that Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey and Indiana take the top four spots. Tying for fifth are Connecticut, Michigan and North Carolina. Rounding out the remainder of the list you'll find New York, California and Wyoming.

In reviewing this top 10 list, we can see a few surprises. First, Wyoming would likely rarely be on most people's list of great states in which to go to college. Second, the absence of schools in the Midwest, South, and Southeast is surprising. We could also include the Northwest, but the study's data formula has pinpointed East and West (and Wyoming).

Let's take a quick look at that formula's methodology:

To find the top states for higher education, SmartAsset analyzed data in all 50 states for the following metrics:

- Undergraduate graduation rate. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and is for the 2017-2018 school year.

- Average net price. The metric considers the average yearly price for first-time, full-time undergraduate students. Data comes from IPEDS and is for the 2017-2018 school year.

- Student-faculty ratio. Data comes from IPEDS and is for the 2017-2018 school year.

- 20-year return on investment. This is the total dollar amount earned by a bachelor-degree-holder over the course of 20 years of median pay (or 24 years of median pay for a high school graduate) minus the costs of attending the higher education institute for four years. Data comes from PayScale.

- In-state attendance rate. This is the percentage of students who graduated from high school in 2017 and attended an in-state college. Data comes from IPEDS and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Data for metrics was found using a weighted average of the schools in each state.

We ranked each state in the five metrics. We then found each state's average ranking, giving a double weighting to graduation rate. Using this average ranking we created our final score. We graded our score on a curve, with the top 15% of states receiving a grade of A and the bottom 15% receiving a grade of F.

Here's a look at several of the Top 10 states along with some rationale:

10. Wyoming. Wyoming ranks fifth-best for student-faculty ratio, at about 15 students per instructor. The state also comes in 15th overall for both its relatively low average net price, at $12,999, and its relatively high 20-year return on investment, at $360,000.

8. New York. New York ranks in the top half of the study for four out of five metrics, all except in-state attendance. The average net price of the four-year public colleges and universities in the state of New York is the third-lowest in the study, at $10,167. Despite the relative affordability, it might still be wise to look into New York's 529 College Savings Program if you're a guardian planning to start saving for a child's future education. The state also ranks 18th-best for two metrics – a low student-faculty ratio, at approximately 16 students per instructors, and a high 20-year return on investment, at $344,490.

5. North Carolina (tie). North Carolina ties for fifth place, along with Connecticut and Michigan. It comes in seventh for its relatively high undergraduate graduation rate, which is 65%. Graduates who are looking for opportunities after receiving their degree might wish to stay in the state, as two North Carolina cities are ideal for young professionals. Even though the state ranks within the bottom half of the study for 20-year return on investment, at $257,462, it ranks 14th-best for its relatively low average net price, at $12,910.

5. Connecticut (tie). Tying for fifth place in our rankings with Michigan and North Carolina, Connecticut comes in fourth for the metric of undergraduate graduation rate, at 66%. The state also finishes seventh-best for student-to-faculty ratio at approximately 15 to 1. Furthermore, the state ranks within the top 15 for its relatively high 20-year return on investment, at $367,803.

3. New Jersey. New Jersey finishes second for the metric of undergraduate graduation rate in its four-year public colleges and universities, at 69%. It also finishes seventh-best for its 20-year return on investment, at $409,195, and 13th-best for student-to-faculty ratio, at almost 16 students per faculty member.

1. Delaware. Delaware ranks third overall in three of the metrics we considered: student-to-faculty ratio, at almost 14 students per faculty member; 20-year return on investment, at $433,667 and in-state attendance rate, at 52%. Delaware also finishes in the top 15 of the study for the average net price across all of its four-year public colleges and universities, at $12,807

All 50 states are ranked at the bottom of the study. Oklahoma finishes last. My home state, Pennsylvania, comes in at number 20. Where does yours rank?

Share Your Thoughts

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Check out our forum to contribute to the conversation!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

Can I Reapply After Early Decision or Early Action Rejection?

Can I Reapply After Early Decision or Early Action Rejection?

Question: If I apply to a college through Early Decision or Early Action, but I am not accepted, can I apply again through Regula…

38547127311_5463cc8dd3_w.jpg

How To Get Into Penn in 2022

There's no doubt that the University of Pennsylvania is extremely difficult to get into. In 2021, the ivy league school in P…

Early Decision or Early Action?

Early Decision or Early Action?

Question: Why should I consider an Early Decision or Early Action college application? What's the difference?

Your level of d…

Can I Apply Early Twice?

Can I Apply Early Twice?

Question: I am planning on applying early decision to my first-choice college. I will be notified of my status by December 31st. …

Advantages of EARLY Early-Decision Application?

Advantages of EARLY Early-Decision Application?

Question: I'm applying Early Decision to an Ivy League school. Is there any advantage for me to send in the application mate…

A-Z College Forums

Browse the College Forums
C1E9D4E7-C4C9-4B28-8946-8F441A6D62B3

Find Your Best Fit

Find your best fit college and track your favorite colleges.