The saying “everything is bigger in Texas” often rings true, especially when it comes to college.
The Lone Star State had the nation’s second-largest number of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions in the fall 2013 semester, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (only California had more). The state also boasts two of the country’s largest universities by undergraduate enrollment: Texas A&M University in College Station (No. 4) and University of Texas at Austin (No. 7), according to U.S. News & World Report.
Fortunately, the “everything is bigger” saying doesn’t apply to the amount of debt in-state students graduate with at many of Texas’ top schools. While Texas is home to expensive private colleges that can require massive student loans, the state also has many affordable schools that provide graduates with a strong education and earning potential — and manageable debt.
Public beats private. Unsurprisingly, public schools typically offer better value than private schools. All schools on our top 10 list — except for Rice University — are public institutions.
Students in bigger cities perform better. While the cost of living may be highest in big cities, four of the top five schools on the list are in some of the largest cities in Texas — Houston, Austin and Dallas. Although schools in smaller towns may offer lower tuition, students at some schools in larger cities have better graduation rates and higher salaries after college.
We evaluated 36 universities and colleges in Texas by analyzing data on affordability, prestige, graduation rates, graduate salaries and student debt. More details about our methodology are at the end of this study. To see the full rankings, click here.
Tips for students and graduates
Max out federal and state loans first. Federal and state loans often have lower interest rates and offer benefits, such as forbearance and forgiveness. 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 the gap between federal aid and tuition forces you to take out private loans, comparison shop to get the best fees, interest rate and terms.
Refinance for better rates. If you’re a graduate with a job and want to reduce your monthly payments, consider refinancing your student loans at a lower interest rate.
1. Rice University
Despite its steep tuition — $37,292 a year, by far the most expensive school on our list — Rice offers generous student aid. As a result, students graduate with among the least amount of debt in the top 10 schools, and the student loan default rate is also the lowest at 1.3%. Graduates of this prestigious school in Houston, which is the only private college to crack our top 10, also enjoy the highest median salary of $114,000 a decade or more after leaving the university.
2. Texas A&M University
Texas A&M, with its strong agricultural science and engineering programs, puts its graduates on track to perform well after school: The median salary 10 years or more after graduation is $98,300, second only to Rice.
3. University of Texas at Austin
While this school may be known for its successful athletic teams and rowdy Greek life, the University of Texas at Austin is tied for the second-highest median SAT score among our top 10 and it offers prestigious academic programs, especially in business and communications, at an affordable price tag. Graduates earn a median income of $97,200 a decade or more after completing their degrees, the third highest in the top 10.
4. University of Texas at Dallas
Located in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, this school is working to become a Tier One research university. It’s an excellent alternative for students unable to get into the increasingly competitive UT-Austin, which has the same median SAT score — the second highest among the top 10. UT-Dallas comes in second place for the highest amount of aid given.
5. University of Houston
The University of Houston was once known as a commuter school ideal for locals who wanted to live at home. While many students still commute, in recent years, the university has worked to become more of a residential campus. Graduates from the University of Houston have the third-lowest student loan debt among the top 10 schools ($18,244). The school has many strong programs, including its theater department, which boasts famous alumni such as the Quaid brothers, Jim Parsons and Brent Spiner — otherwise known as “Data” in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
6. University of Texas Pan-American
Located near the border of Mexico, this school is suited for students who want to attend college in the Rio Grande Valley. While the salaries of graduates are the lowest of the top 10 schools, UT Pan-American students enjoy the cheapest tuition of the top 10 schools and the lowest amount of student loan debt.
7. Texas Tech University
This school in Lubbock, a midsize city in the state’s west, offers students a large campus without the headaches of a major city. It has the fourth-most affordable tuition on the list ($7,517 a year in 2012-13). Texas Tech graduates command the top 10 list’s fourth-highest median salary a decade after graduating at $87,700.
8. University of Texas at Arlington
Once a commuter and night school, UT-Arlington now has dorms and other features to create an enjoyable campus life. The university, which is located between Dallas and Fort Worth, charged tuition of $8,878 a year in 2012-13.
9. West Texas A&M University
This university is in Canyon, a city with just over 14,000 residents according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it ideal for students seeking a small-town feel and affordable cost of living. With 2012-13 tuition at $6,308, West Texas A&M has the second-lowest tuition among the top 10 list. It also is tied with the University of Texas at Arlington and Rice University for the highest percent of alumni who find meaning in their work.
10. University of Texas at Tyler
This university in East Texas has the third-most affordable tuition on the list, with a cost of $7,222 a year in 2012-13. UT-Tyler also boasts of having 59% of graduates who say they find meaning in their job. That’s the second-highest percentage among the top 10, after a three-way tie for first place at 60%.
Best colleges for your buck in Texas
Scroll through the table below to see the data for all 36 universities.
|Rank||School||Public or private||Median SAT score||Cost of tuition||Average aid package||Average student debt||Default rate||Median salary after 10 years or more||Percentage who graduate in 6 years||Graduates who find meaning in their careers||Score|
|2||Texas A&M University||Public||1182||$8,506||$8,440||$25,223||4.8%||$98,300||79%||52%||69.10|
|3||University of Texas at Austin||Public||1262||$9,790||$8,627||$25,300||4.7%||$97,200||79%||48%||67.75|
|4||University of Texas at Dallas||Public||1262||$10,666||$9,577||$20,504||7.2%||$83,800||63%||45%||64.66|
|5||University of Houston||Public||1136||$8,094||$6,759||$18,244||7.9%||$84,000||48%||54%||63.39|
|6||University of Texas-Pan American||Public||937||$5,165||$6,920||$15,200||12.4%||$63,000||39%||52%||61.62|
|7||Texas Tech University||Public||1116||$7,517||$6,236||$23,838||7.6%||$87,700||59%||55%||61.29|
|8||University of Texas at Arlington||Public||1077||$8,878||$6,301||$22,484||7.3%||$83,400||40%||60%||57.31|
|9||West Texas A&M University||Public||994||$6,308||$5,330||$19,774||11.0%||$76,200||40%||60%||56.86|
|10||University of Texas at Tyler||Public||1064||$7,222||$6,111||$20,151||9.4%||$67,700||44%||59%||56.41|
|11||University of Texas at El Paso||Public||923||$7,214||$6,855||$21,640||9.8%||$75,000||40%||65%||56.18|
|12||University of Houston-Downtown||Public||894||$5,022||$4,646||$19,440||12.1%||$78,700||14%||49%||53.24|
|13||Tarleton State University||Public||984||$5,522||$5,525||$25,513||9.1%||$64,200||43%||57%||52.86|
|14||University of Texas at San Antonio||Public||1050||$7,389||$6,632||$25,828||11.0%||$72,300||30%||56%||52.14|
|15||Texas State University at San Marcos||Public||1045||$7,732||$5,963||$26,257||9.4%||$72,800||57%||50%||51.16|
|16||Sam Houston State University||Public||999||$6,608||$5,835||$27,689||10.5%||$72,300||51%||53%||50.79|
|17||Stephen F. Austin State University||Public||998||$7,928||$6,347||$26,531||12.9%||$75,300||43%||62%||50.42|
|18||Midwestern State University||Public||993||$7,632||$4,996||$26,221||7.4%||$72,300||44%||64%||50.19|
|19||Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi||Public||960||$7,084||$5,072||$24,513||12.1%||$72,300||40%||68%||50.14|
|20||Prairie View A&M University||Public||845||$6,404||$7,846||$26,500||24.5%||$81,300||37%||57%||49.70|
|21||Angelo State University||Public||965||$6,327||$6,209||$25,728||13.4%||$65,000||30%||56%||48.93|
|22||Dallas Baptist University||Private||1078||$21,110||$8,918||$19,699||6.9%||$72,400||55%||64%||48.34|
|23||Wayland Baptist University||Private||940||$11,900||$6,250||$21,779||10.8%||$68,100||33%||69%||45.56|
|24||Southern Methodist University||Private||1302||$41,750||$24,201||$29,829||4.0%||$88,200||79%||48%||45.48|
|27||Concordia University Texas||Private||1035||$23,600||$12,107||$29,869||6.7%||$74,800||34%||61%||39.74|
|29||Texas Christian University||Private||1206||$34,590||$17,218||$38,317||4.3%||$78,500||76%||60%||37.96|
|30||Our Lady of the Lake University||Private||882||$23,420||$21,195||$32,480||9.5%||$62,600||34%||63%||36.55|
|32||Texas Southern University||Public||832||$7,646||$6,607||$40,350||17.4%||$69,200||16%||67%||33.63|
|34||University of Mary Hardin-Baylor||Private||1069||$24,150||$10,294||$34,898||9.4%||$67,700||47%||46%||30.82|
|35||Abilene Christian University||Private||1087||$26,770||$12,674||$42,585||7.5%||$70,100||57%||58%||29.74|
|36||University of the Incarnate Word||Private||967||$23,690||$12,048||$37,825||9.2%||$58,700||40%||67%||28.47|
- 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 from 2012-13 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 & 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 is 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. 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?” This is 5% of the score.
NerdWallet staff writer Emily Starbuck Crone contributed to this article.
Rice University image via iStock.