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Save on Student Loans With Florida’s Best Colleges for Your Buck

Sept. 14, 2015
Loans, Student Loans
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Student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion in the United States, with 69% of graduates in 2013 owing money. Those who took out loans averaged $28,400 in debt after getting their diploma. But if you’re a Florida resident who opts to stay in-state for school, you don’t necessarily have to take out this crippling amount to get a great education.

Almost half, or 47%, of Florida graduates have no student loans. Those who do owe an average of $24,017, over $4,000 less than the national average.

Along with the low college costs for in-state residents, the Sunshine State offers hundreds of miles of beaches, booming nightlife and some of the most popular amusement parks in the country.

To determine which schools in Florida offer students the biggest bang for their buck, NerdWallet looked at several metrics, including affordability and student success.

NerdWallet’s analysis

Here are the factors we considered for our list:

  • How much debt do students graduate with?
  • How affordable is the school?
  • How much do graduates make?
  • How prestigious is the school?
  • Do students pay back their loans on time?
  • Do students graduate within six years?
  • Do graduates find their careers meaningful?

Details about our methodology are at the end of this study.

Key takeaways

  • It pays to go public. Florida’s public universities dominate our list. Only two private schools, the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University, cracked the top 10.
  • A high rank and meaningful career don’t go hand-in-hand. Our top-ranking schools don’t necessarily have the most graduates who find their work meaningful. Only 52% of graduates from our highest-ranked school, the University of Florida, answered “yes” or “very much so” when asked whether their work makes the world a better place. Nova Southeastern University, ranked 10th on our list, came in first overall for career satisfaction; 68% of graduates report finding their work meaningful.

Tips for students and graduates

  • Max out federal and state loans first. Public loans often have lower interest rates and better benefits, such as forbearance and forgiveness, than private loans. Take advantage of federal and state loans by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Get help with your FAFSA forms here.
  • Shop around for private loans. If your tuition exceeds your federal aid, shop around to get private loans with the most favorable terms. Look for loans with low fees and interest rates, and pay close attention to the repayment terms. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your school’s financial aid office for a list of preferred lenders.
  • Choose the best repayment option for you. Repayment plans aren’t one-size-fits-all. There are several options to consider, including standard, extended and income-based repayment. For more information, check out our guide on how to pick the best loan repayment plan.
  • Refinance for better rates. If you’re a graduate with a job and want to reduce your monthly payments, consider refinancing your student loans. Refinancing allows you to combine your existing student loans into a single loan with a lower interest rate. This decreases your monthly payments and the amount you’ll spend on interest over the life of your loan.

1. University of Florida

With its low tuition and high graduation rate, the University of Florida tops our list of universities offering the best bang for your buck. Gators on average make more than any other graduates on our list, with those out of school for 10 years or more making median salaries of $86,300. Plus, UF isn’t just a great Florida school — U.S. News & World Report ranked it the 14th best public university in the United States.

2. Florida State University

The UF-FSU rivalry goes beyond football. Coming in right behind the University of Florida, Florida State boasts high graduation rates and post-grad salaries. It’s ranked as the state’s top university for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and U.S. News & World Report named FSU’s law school Florida’s best. Florida State’s world-class faculty includes a Nobel laureate, two Pulitzer Prize winners and over 30 Fulbright scholars. Alumni include actor Burt Reynolds and fitness personality Richard Simmons.

3. University of South Florida

The University of South Florida, located in Tampa, was also ranked No. 5 on Military Times’ Best for Vets: Colleges 2015 list. Notable USF attendees include comedian Gallagher and Arizona Diamondbacks executive and former professional baseball manager Tony La Russa.

4. Florida International University

Florida International University students graduate with one of the lowest debt loads on our list. Its College of Business is in the elite ranks of the 5% of business schools worldwide accredited by the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) International. FIU is located in greater Miami, so after hitting the books, students can recharge on one of Miami’s gorgeous beaches. Work hard, lounge hard.

5. University of Central Florida

UCF is the second-largest university in the country, with over 60,000 students. More than 1 in 5 Knights major in business, and graduates go on to make $72,600 after 10 years. Notable UCF alumni include George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort, and Alan Eustace, a former senior vice president at Google.

6. University of North Florida

With an average student debt balance of $17,617, UNF graduates have less debt than students who attend the other schools on our list. Former North Florida Ospreys include several members of the Florida House of Representatives, including Janet H. Adkins, Travis Cummings and Reggie Fullwood.

7. University of West Florida

UWF graduates have low average student debt and a high likelihood of finding meaning in their careers, so it’s not surprising that several graduates went on to be influential athletes, business leaders and politicians. Notable alumni include professional soccer player Keith Savage and federal judge Margaret Catharine Rodgers.

8. University of Miami

The University of Miami is the top private school on our list. The school dominates in two categories: It has the highest median SAT score and the lowest default rate of all of the schools on our list. Around half of incoming freshman graduated in the top 5% of their high school class. Canes go on to earn a median income of over $76,000 after 10 years.

9. Florida A&M University

On affordability, Florida A&M is tough to beat. It has the lowest yearly tuition of the schools on our list. FAMU is the largest historically black university in the United States; its notable alumni include Microsoft chairman John W. Thompson and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown.

10. Nova Southeastern University

Although this private university ranks 10th on the list, a higher percentage of its graduates find meaning in their work than anywhere else in the study. When asked whether their work makes the world a better place, 68% of former Sharks responded “yes” or “very much so.” Of course, it’s easy to have such a sunny outlook in South Florida, where it frequently feels like summer.

Which school would you choose?

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Best colleges for your buck in Florida

Rank School Public or private Median SAT score Cost of tuition Average aid package Average student debt Default rate Median income after 10 years or more Percentage who graduate in 6 years Percentage who find meaning in their career Score
1 University of Florida Public 1272 $6,143 $6,128 $20,708 3.6% $86,300 87% 52% 83.958
2 Florida State University Public 1212 $6,402 $4,537 $23,782 5.8% $77,600 77% 48% 63.858
3 University of South Florida Public 1168 $6,334 $6,084 $24,107 7.4% $76,000 63% 54% 63.856
4 Florida International University Public 1154 $6,417 $4,904 $17,893 8.9% $73,700 52% 52% 60.464
5 University of Central Florida Public 1175 $6,247 $4,450 $23,186 5.4% $72,600 67% 48% 58.856
6 University of North Florida Public 1143 $6,235 $4,824 $17,617 7.5% $68,300 50% 51% 57.537
7 University of West Florida Public 1062 $6,238 $5,501 $19,239 9.7% $69,600 42% 57% 54.493
8 University of Miami Private 1332 $41,220 $25,099 $27,827 2.8% $76,500 82% 44% 49.895
9 Florida A&M University Public 947 $5,785 $7,165 $31,251 14.7% $72,000 41% 63% 45.175
10 Nova Southeastern University Private 1084 $24,414 $10,302 $31,939 3.5% $75,200 41% 68% 39.451


  • How much debt students graduate with is 20% of the score. We measured the average debt of graduates in 2012-13 as reported by the Institute for College Access and Success.
  • Affordability of the school is 30% of the score. This score includes the cost of tuition as reported by the Institute for College Access and Success at 15%, and the average amount of student aid from the Chronicle of Higher Education at 15%.
  • The salary of college graduates is 15% of the score. We examined how much graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn as full-time employees 10 years or more out of college, as reported by PayScale.
  • A school’s prestige makes up 15% of the score. We used median SAT scores, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, as a proxy for prestige. A higher median SAT score suggests greater prestige.
  • We looked at loan default rates from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to see whether students pay back their loans on time. This was 10% of the score.
  • We examined when students graduate, including graduation rates within six years and the average number of years it takes to graduate. The data, which are 5% of the score, are from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • We measured whether graduates find their careers meaningful for 5% of the score. Using data from PayScale, we focused on responses of “yes” or “very much so” when asked, “Does your work make the world a better place?”

Victoria Simons is a senior analyst covering loans and insurance for NerdWallet.

Nerdwallet staff writer Erin el Issa contributed to this article.

University of Florida image via iStock.