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Best States for Higher Education – 2022 Edition

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SmartAsset: Best States for Higher Education - 2022 Edition

A college degree is an important professional milestone that can boost your finances. According to data from Indeed.com, the average yearly earnings for someone with only a high school diploma is $37,024, while someone with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $60,996. Keeping that in mind, SmartAsset crunched the numbers to identify and rank the best U.S. states for higher education in 2022.

To do this, SmartAsset looked at four-year public colleges and universities in each state. We ranked states according to five metrics: undergraduate graduation rate, average net price, student-to-faculty ratio, 20-year return on investment and in-state attendance rate. For more details on how we found and analyzed our data, take a look at the data and methodology section below.

This is SmartAsset’s eighth annual study on the best states for higher education. Read our 2021 edition here.

Key Findings

  • California slips and Michigan claims the top spot. California ranked fifth in our 2021 study, but is 10th in 2022. Given the size and scope of the Golden State’s university system, this is a big change. Michigan, however, claims first place in 2022 after ranking seventh in 2021.
  • A strong showing from Northeast states. New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York all rank in the top 10 states for higher education. These states all rank particularly well in two metrics: 20-year return on investment and undergraduate graduation rate.Image is a map by SmartAsset titled "Top 10 States for Higher Education."

1. Michigan

Michigan ranks in the top 20 states for four of the five metrics we considered. That includes the 12th-best student-to-faculty ratio (15.97 students for each faculty member), 13th for in-state attendance (33%) and 14th for its 20-year return on investment ($388,278). Additionally, the undergraduate graduation rate is 16th-highest, at 60%.

2. Virginia

Virginia has the highest undergraduate graduation rate in this study (73%). It also places seventh for student-to-faculty ratio (15.71). Higher education is pricy in the Old Dominion State, though, ranking 45th with an average net price of $18,998 per year.

3. North Carolina

The Tar Heel State has the fifth-best undergraduate graduation rate in this study (68%). It also places 14th in average net price, costing $12,919 per year. It places, however, near the bottom at 43rd with a 20-year return on investment of $238,554.

4. New Jersey

New Jersey’s undergraduate graduation rate is 70%, ranking third in this study. It also ranks seventh with a 20-year return on investment at $441,659. The state is expensive for higher education, though, placing 42nd with an average net price of $18,240.

5. Rhode Island

Rhode Island’s undergraduates rank 10th in our study with a 64% graduation rate. The state has the 15th-best student-to-faculty ratio (16.14 students for each faculty member) and also places 15th with a 20-year return on investment at $376,208.

6. Washington

Washington’s average net price is just $10,400 per year, ranking third on this list. The 20-year return of investment is $491,971 (second-best). But the graduation rate for undergraduates ranks towards the bottom of the study at just 48%.

7. Iowa

The Hawkeye State’s graduation rate for undergraduates is 72%, the second-highest in this study. It ranks eighth with 20-year return on investment at $427,752. But the average net price is in the bottom half of this study at 37th, at $16,637 per year.

8. Connecticut

Connecticut’s student-to-faculty ratio is 14.76 students per faculty member, the sixth-best in this study. The state ranks eighth with a 66% graduation rate for undergraduates. The average net price, though, is $18,528, ranking 44th.

9. New York

New York’s average net price for a year of college is just $10,784, the fourth-lowest. It ranks 18th with a 20-year return on investment at $369,891, and 19th with a 58% graduation rate for undergraduates.

10. California

California has the best 20-year return on investment in higher education in this study ($497,667). It also ranks 11th for average net price ($11,858 per year), but places near the bottom with a student-to-faculty ratio of 24.09 students for each faculty member.

Image is a table by SmartAsset titled "Best States for Higher Education."

Data and Methodology

To determine the top states for higher education, SmartAsset analyzed data across 49 states (Delaware was missing comprehensive data). We considered the following five metrics:

  • Undergraduate graduation rate. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and is for the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Average net price. This is the average yearly net price charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students who were awarded grant or scholarship aid. Data comes from IPEDS and is for the 2019-2020 school year.
  • Student-to-faculty ratio. Data comes from IPEDS and is for the 2019-2020 school year.
  • 20-year return on investment. This is the difference between 20 years of median pay for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree minus the costs for attending the higher education institution for four years and 24 years of median pay for a high school graduate. Data comes from Payscale.
  • In-state attendance rate. This is the percentage of students who graduated high school in 2019 and attended an in-state college. Data comes from IPEDS and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

We looked exclusively at four-year public colleges and universities. Metrics were calculated using a weighted average of the schools in each state according to undergraduate enrollment size.

First, we ranked each state in every metric, giving a double weighting to the undergraduate graduation rate and a single weighting to all other metrics. We then found each state’s average ranking and used the average to determine a 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.

Tips for Paying for College

  • The best way to plan for your paying for an education for you or your children is to work with a financial advisor. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Consider opening up a 529 plan. 529 plans allow you to save money tax-free to get ready for college costs down the road.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com

Photo credit: © iStock/nazar_ab

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