When it comes to major life decisions, choosing the right college is right up there at the top of the list. That’s why Money.com recently released a list of the best colleges for the value in the United States. Make no mistake, the list isn’t simply compiled of the cheapest schools you can go to, but of the ones that promise the best overall investment for your money.

How value was determined

When you think of a list of “value” schools, you may or may not expect to see ivy league universities such as Princeton near the top of the list. Money.com, however, was less interested in the cheapest schools and more interested in the ones that tend to bring the best value overall. That’s why they took each of the following factors into account:

  • Median SAT/ACT scores of each school’s students
  • The estimated price of tuition in 2019-20 without student aid
  • The estimated price of tuition in 2019-20 with the average grant
  • The percentage of students who get grants
  • Average student debt
  • Average early career earnings

As it turns out, the cheapest schools aren’t always the ones you might think — at least not in the long run. Here we’ll take a look at the top five schools that made the list as well as the reasons why.

1. University of California, Irvine – Irvine, CA

The top school on the list was none other than UC Irvine, a school located just minutes away from Disneyland — score! The average SAT/ACT scores of incoming students were 1260/29, which puts the school in a competitive but do-able bracket. While tuition is at $35,400, MONEY reveals that 66% of students receive grants, which can bring tuition costs down to an average of $14,900. With early career earnings at $57,700, the average student debt hovers around right around $16,500.

Though the school was established just over 50 years ago, it’s already earning a respected place among other national institutions, boasting a rate of graduation within 6 years (that’s 29% higher than average!). With three Nobel prize winners on staff, this school may be one to look into if you’re confident that you can resist the lure of the nearby beach….or at least have the discipline to bring your books along so you can study in the sunshine.

2. CUNY Bernard M. Baruch College – New York, NY

If you have your sights set on taking over Wall Street, then why not consider studying at a college just a few miles away? Baruch is a great choice for those interested in careers in finance, as 3/4 of it’s undergraduate students study in its Zicklin School of Business. Rest assured that, despite its prestige, Baruch is far from a school that caters exclusively to the children of the financially elite.

In fact, 45% of its undergrads are actually considered low-income and make up one of the most diverse student bodies in the country. An impressive 70% of the school’s students graduate within 6 years and earn an early career average of $57,100. Though tuition is $33,200, over half of the students receive grants which can knock the average price down to only $4,900 or $410 for low-income students. With such a successful graduation rate and early career prospects, Baruch boasts one of the lowest average student loan debt averages at $10,720.

3. Princeton University – Princeton, NJ

Princeton University is shrouded in such prestige that many prospective students doubt they could ever afford it. Get ready for a shocker. While the school’s tuition is indeed $69,100 without aid, a huge amount of students are awarded grants. For every 10 students who qualify, six are awarded such huge amounts of assistance that over 80% of students graduate debt-free. Those coming from families who make less than $65,000 even qualify for free rides. This combined with the fact that the average graduate can expect to net a yearly $72,700 in their early career may go a long way in explaining why the average student debt is only $7,500.

So what’s the catch? Well, Princeton doesn’t take just anyone. While the university seems genuinely up for helping out students who show potential, that potential has to be verifiably high. The average SAT/ACT scores of Princeton students is 1500/33. That said, if you tend to rock amazing grades and test scores, don’t let financial worries hold you back from sending in an application.

4. University of California, Los Angeles – Los Angeles, CA

If you’re looking to study at a school with an amazing list of alumni, then look no further than UCLA. The Los Angeles-based University has produced stars such as James Franco, Jackie Robinson, Troy Aikman, and computer science star Leonard Kleinrock. UCLA also boasts a high graduation rate of 91% of freshman which is impressively high compared to the national average. Graduates can also look forward to steller career odds, with students pulling in an average of around $60,000 within three years of earning their degrees. 59% of students qualify for aid which brings the regular $35,400 tuition down to an average of $15,800.

5. University of California, Davis – Davis, CA

Apparently, California is where it’s at when it comes to getting a great value for your college money. UC Davis ranks as one among the best public universities in the country without threatening to cripple its students under a mountain of loan debt. The median SAT/ACT scores for students come in at 1250/29, with 38% of the student body coming from a low-income background. The school has an impressive graduation rate of 85% with early-career earnings at an average of $59,400. Estimated tuition is $37,300, but 67% of students qualify for grants which can lower the price to an average of $17,600.

If you’re into agriculture or animal science, then UC Davis is well worth looking into. The school has everything from a 100-acre arboretum to a dairy center, not to mention a certificate program in winemaking for those interested in eventually making their way up to wine country. You’ll also find yourself in an eco-friendly environment, as the university was among the first in the country to promote biking and sustainable energy.