Students: Here Are the Best Colleges for Your Buck in Massachusetts

Student Loans
Best Bang for Your College Buck in Massachusetts

Picking a college to attend has always been one of life’s tough choices. And for high school students with their hearts set on attending one of the top-tier schools in Massachusetts, the decision can be even more mind-boggling.

With tuition prices sky high and student loan debt climbing, it’s important to know the potential return on your college investment. Surprisingly, perhaps, schools with a reputation for high sticker prices can turn out to be the best economic choices when factoring in federal and collegiate aid. And maybe not so surprisingly, those schools can also be the hardest to get into.

Using metrics that measured school affordability, the success of graduates and other key factors, NerdWallet crunched the data to uncover the colleges in Massachusetts where students will get the most bang for their buck.

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. We evaluated 32 universities and colleges in Massachusetts. To see the full rankings, click here.

Key takeaways

  • Some of the priciest schools are the most generous when it comes to awarding aid, which includes grants, loans and scholarships. Williams College, the most expensive school on the list at $44,920 for annual tuition, is also the third-most generous school. The aid Williams provides would cover 85% of tuition.
  • You don’t need to go to a private university to get a good return on your investment. Two of the top 10 schools are public: Massachusetts Maritime Academy at No. 7, and Framingham State University at No. 10.
  • Finding meaning in your career doesn’t necessarily correlate to other factors in the study. Harvard University, No. 1 overall, came out on top, with 66% of graduates answering “yes” or “very much so” when asked: “Does your work make the world a better place?” At Lesley University, which ranked 29 out of 32 schools, 65% of graduates find meaning in their work.

Tips for students

  • Make sure to max out federal and state loans, which often have lower interest rates and offer benefits, such as forbearance and forgiveness, before turning to private loans. Get help with your FAFSA forms here.
  • If the gap between federal aid and tuition forces you to take out private loans, be sure to shop around to get the best fees, interest rate and terms.
  • If you’re a graduate with a job and want to reduce your monthly payments, consider refinancing your student loans.


1. Harvard University

Harvard, thanks to a generous aid program, tops the list of universities offering the biggest bang for your buck. Students who receive aid — including grants, loans and scholarships — get an average of $38,381, or 96% of tuition. With its reputation as one of the world’s elite universities, Harvard has the lowest acceptance rate of any school on our list, admitting only 5.8% of fall 2013 applicants. Students lucky enough to be accepted will find themselves in Cambridge, close to downtown Boston.

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Just over a mile east of Harvard, MIT comes in second on our list thanks to the salaries of graduates. The median salary for graduates 10 years or more out of college was $128,800, the highest on our list. Like Harvard, MIT’s acceptance rate is microscopic: It admitted 8.2% of fall 2013 applicants.

3. Williams College

Home to mascot Ephelia the Purple Cow, Williams is a liberal arts college in the beautiful Berkshires. Students here benefit from graduating with the least amount of debt of any school on our list. With only $12,474 in debt, alumni go on to high-paying jobs, with a median income of $110,700 at 10 years or more after college.

4. Wellesley College

Wellesley is a women’s liberal arts college west of Boston. Students go on to graduate with relatively little debt: only $14,030, compared with our list’s average of $26,152. Students can also register for classes at nearby universities and colleges including MIT, Babson, Brandeis and Olin. With notable alumni such as two former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wellesley is the highest-ranking women’s college on our list.

5. Tufts University

At this university just outside Boston, students take enormous pride in their mascot, Jumbo, an elephant. Like Jumbo, alumni salaries are big: The median income of a Tufts graduate is $123,600, compared with our list’s average of $87,044.

6. Boston College

Home to an eagle mascot named Baldwin, this private Jesuit Catholic research university is a few miles west of vibrant, downtown Boston. Boston College accepted 32.2% of fall 2013 applicants. Notable alumni include Secretary of State John Kerry and the actress and comedian Amy Poehler.

7. Massachusetts Maritime Academy

Massachusetts Maritime Academy is one of two public schools to make our top 10 list. Students will benefit from in-state tuition that’s an affordable $7,202 a year. The enrollment skews heavily male — with a student body that’s 88% men and 12% women. The school is a good choice for students seeking a degree in fields such as marine engineering and marine transportation.

8. Babson College

This business-focused private school, which accepted 28.2% of applicants into its fall 2013 class, likes to keeps things small and intimate for its 2,000 undergraduates. Babson’s professors know how to run businesses, which can make this school ideal for those interested in entrepreneurship.

9. Smith College

Located in Northampton, Smith is the second women’s liberal arts college to make our top 10 list. Smith is part of the Five Colleges consortium, which allows students to take courses at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and University of Massachusetts Amherst, which are all just a short shuttle ride away. Smith’s impressive alumni include former first lady Nancy Reagan, chef Julia Child and poet Sylvia Plath.

10. Framingham State University

The second public school to make the top 10 list, Framingham’s tuition is the second lowest at $8,080 a year for state residents. Originally a women’s college, the university is now 64% female and 36% male.

Best colleges for your buck in Massachusetts

School Public or private Acceptance rate Cost of tuition Average amount of aid as percentage of tuition 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
Harvard University Private 5.8% $39,966 96% $12,560 1.9% $118,200 98% 66% 83.50
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Private 8.2% $42,050 79% $17,891 1.7% $128,800 93% 58% 74.14
Williams College Private 17.5% $44,920 85% $12,474 1.8% $110,700 95% 42% 71.53
Wellesley College Private 29.1% $42,082 88% $14,030 1.2% $77,700 91% 54% 64.99
Tufts University Private 18.9% $44,666 67% $24,266 2.3% $123,600 92% 59% 61.30
Boston College Private 32.2% $43,878 68% $20,601 1.4% $100,200 91% 45% 56.36
Massachusetts Maritime Academy Public 58.6% $7,202 80% $34,224 6.3% $107,400 67% 41% 52.71
Babson College Private 28.2% $41,888 71% $33,258 1.0% $117,400 91% 46% 52.65
Smith College Private 43.1% $41,460 80% $22,699 3.1% $76,900 86% 58% 51.98
Framingham State University Public 55.9% $8,080 53% $18,027 6.0% $72,600 51% 46% 50.85
College of the Holy Cross Private 33.0% $43,400 69% $30,880 1.9% $99,600 91% 53% 49.17
University of Massachusetts at Lowell Public 63.9% $11,847 59% $28,482 7.3% $96,600 54% 57% 46.60
Brandeis University Private 37.0% $44,294 67% $28,647 2.4% $91,100 90% 49% 46.21
University of Massachusetts at Amherst Public 62.9% $13,415 61% $28,999 5.6% $84,600 73% 49% 46.18
Worcester State University Public 60.6% $8,157 54% $25,286 5.8% $73,200 49% 50% 45.27
Mount Holyoke College Private 46.8% $41,456 68% $23,291 5.6% $70,300 82% 58% 43.69
Emerson College Private 48.0% $34,198 49% $24,451 2.5% $81,000 82% 47% 43.59
Bentley University Private 43.8% $39,628 62% $31,208 1.0% $96,500 87% 34% 43.43
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Public 67.2% $8,525 69% $28,109 5.8% $55,100 57% 55% 43.23
University of Massachusetts at Boston Public 69.9% $11,966 67% $26,078 8.6% $75,400 44% 56% 43.06
Massachusetts College of Art and Design Public 69.8% $10,400 74% $26,832 9.3% $69,700 74% 30% 42.33
Wentworth Institute of Technology Private 57.5% $27,108 39% $26,244 4.5% $95,600 62% 62% 42.03
Fitchburg State College Public 74.2% $8,710 60% $25,524 7.8% $68,900 50% 55% 41.85
Westfield State University Public 74.9% $8,297 57% $25,515 4.6% $60,800 59% 42% 41.38
Clark University Private 61.5% $38,450 53% $24,990 3.6% $84,000 81% 50% 39.81
University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth Public 75.1% $11,681 63% $29,311 9.7% $83,000 49% 51% 38.93
Boston University Private 36.9% $42,994 61% $37,694 2.0% $90,600 85% 46% 37.44
Stonehill College Private 70.9% $35,110 50% $32,248 0.4% $91,500 85% 47% 37.14
Lesley University Private 63.9% $31,575 40% $23,000 4.4% $53,700 46% 65% 32.40
Assumption College Private 74.2% $33,805 54% $33,481 3.5% $73,200 73% 51% 30.17
Suffolk University Private 82.5% $30,792 51% $33,812 7.1% $78,200 55% 39% 23.27
Nichols College Private 81.9% $31,700 52% $32,747 12.1% $79,300 47% 38% 19.07

Because of incomplete data, Amherst, Northeastern University, Hampshire College and other schools weren’t included in this analysis.

Methodology

  • How much debt students graduate with is 20% of 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 is 15% of the score. We used fall 2013 acceptance rates, as reported by U.S. News and World Report, as a proxy for prestige. A lower acceptance rate signals greater prestige.
  • We looked at loan default rates from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to see if students pay back their loans on time. This was 10% of the score.
  • We examined when students graduate, including graduation rate 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 if graduates find their career meaningful for 5% of the score. Using data from Payscale, we focused on a response of “yes” or “very much so” when asked, “Does your work make the world a better place?”

Harvard University image via iStock.