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Best states for college students 2018

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Where do you want to go to college?

Some might think of this question in terms of academics. Others might have athletics foremost in mind, and still others, partying. However, choosing where to go to school is also the most important financial decision most teens have ever faced. Whether you are funding your school with a 529 college savings plan, student loans, earnings from work or the Bank of Mom and Dad, you'll want to make sure you get your money's worth.

Methodology

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, MoneyRates.com looked at a number of factors to determine the best states for college students:

  • Choice of institutions. There are so many variables that go into picking a school, and the more choices you have, the better your chances of finding the right fit for you.
  • Average cost of attendance. MoneyRates.com calculated this by averaging the total annual fees and tuition for in-state residents living on campus (typically the cheapest option) and out-of-state residents living off campus (typically the most expensive).
  • Student retention rates. Naturally, if a high portion of students are transferring or dropping out each year, it is a bit of a red flag.
  • Graduation rates. This really puts the cost of college into perspective - if you don't graduate, the expense won't be worthwhile. So, the fact that students in Rhode Island (the best state for graduation rates) are better than three times more likely to graduate than students in Nevada (the worst state for graduation rates) means Rhode Island delivers better value for hard-earned student dollars, despite being a more costly state for college.

Based on these factors, MoneyRates.com has ranked the 10 best states for college students.

10 Best States for College Students

1. New York

With 230 four-year institutions, New York ranks second only to California in terms of breadth of choice. The average annual cost of attending a school in New York is $38,426, according to the latest released data. While that is more expensive than in most states, the fact that New York schools rank in the top 10 for retention and graduation rates means you are more likely to get your money's worth.

2. Pennsylvania

This state makes the list despite having one of the highest costs of attendance in the nation at $43,620. Why is it on this list? Because it is in the top five in each of the other three categories: choice, retention rate and graduation rate. That means Pennsylvania delivers value in exchange for the high cost of education.

3. Massachusetts

The story here is similar to that of Pennsylvania - high cost but good value. In fact, at $49,015, the annual cost of going to college in Massachusetts is higher than anywhere else in the nation. However, with the second best retention and graduation rates in the nation, Massachusetts offers a particularly good chance that you will walk away with a degree in exchange for all that money. Massachusetts also ranks eighth in the number of college choices, which is pretty impressive for a relatively small state geographically.

4. Nebraska

If the northeast is not your cup of tea, Nebraska represents a quality alternative for college. The number of choices is more limited than in most states, but Nebraska ranks in the top 10 for retention and graduation rates. Also, at $30,864, the annual cost of college is more reasonable than in most states.

5. California

This state leads the way in the number of choices, with 259 four-year institutions. California is also in the top 10 for retention and graduation rates, which is just as well because the cost there is sixth-highest in the nation at $42,539.

6. Washington

For a West Coast alternative to California, Washington offers the sixth-best graduation rate in the nation, and it is also better than average on retention and choice while cost is around the middle of the pack.

7. Michigan

Though not a standout in any one area, Michigan is in the top twenty for retention, graduation and choice, while cost is about average.

8. Missouri

The strongest suit for Missouri is that it ranks ninth for number of choices. Retention rate is in the top 20, and cost is a little more affordable than most states. The graduation rate for Missouri colleges is just slightly below median.

9. Illinois (tie)

With 117 four-year institutions, Illinois offers more choices than all but six other states. Retention rate and graduation rate are in the top fifteen, though at $39,526, the typical cost of attendance is one of the 10 most expensive.

9. Virginia (tie)

Consistency rather than excellence in any single category earned Virginia a tie with Illinois for ninth place. Virginia is in the top twenty for choice, retention and graduation. At $37,847, the annual cost of college in Virginia is more expensive than in most states, but not by too much.

Tips for Paying for College

The states listed above tend to provide good educational value, but that doesn't mean that a college degree will be cheap. With annual costs ranging from around $20,000 to $50,000, you need to save wisely. Here are some tips for doing that:

  1. Start your 529 savings plan early. Contributions to a 529 account are not tax-deductible, but investment earnings are free from taxation. This means that the tax advantage of these plans increases the longer they are invested.
  2. Time your investments wisely. If college is still several years away, you can use growth investments like stocks, but then downshift to safer investments as you approach enrollment. Rather than just keeping money in a savings account, you can earn more interest if you invest in a series of CDs timed in sync with your upcoming tuition payments. Since 2 year CD rates are higher than 1 year rates, 3 year CD rates are higher than 2 year rates and so on, the longer you can commit the money for, the better return it will earn.
  3. Shop for the best interest rates. College savings can build up to significant amounts, so shopping for the best interest rates makes a particularly big difference.
  4. Don't pay checking account fees. You may need a checking account to meet routine expenses, and if so, you can save yourself some money by choosing a checking account that doesn't charge a monthly fee. Online checking accounts are especially likely to be free of these fees.

Investing wisely will help you pay for college, and making a wise choice about where to go to college will help those investments pay off.

Overall Ranking of Best States for College Students

If you didn't see your state on the best list, check out the overall rankings and rankings based on factors described in the study's methodology to find the right institution for you. 

RankState
1New York
2
Pennsylvania
3
Massachusetts
4Nebraska
5California
6
Washington
7Michigan
8Missouri
9 (tie)Illinois
9 (tie)Virginia
11Iowa
12 (tie)Maine
12 (tie)
New Jersey
12 (tie)Utah
15 
Mississippi
16 (tie)
Connecticut
16 (tie)Maryland
18 (tie)Georgia
18 (tie)
Wisconsin
20 (tie)
New Hampshire
20 (tie)Texas
22Florida
23 (tie)Ohio
23 (tie)
Rhode Island
23 (tie)
Tennessee
26
North Carolina
27 (tie)Indiana
27 (tie)Vermont
29
South Carolina
30Oregon
31Montana
32
South Dakota
33Louisiana
34Arkansas
35
Minnesota
36Kentucky
37Colorado
38Kansas
39Delaware
40Arizona
41
North Dakota
42Hawaii
43Alabama
44Idaho
45
Oklahoma
46 (tie)
New Mexico
46 (tie)
West Virginia
48Wyoming
49Alaska
50Nevada

Rankings in All Categories

StateAffordabilityGraduation Rate Retention Rate Edu ChoicesOverall Rank
Alabama1346442543
Alaska1249374949
Arizona1829492040
Arkansas940263434
California4510915
Colorado2526431937
Connecticut47943216
Delaware2319254839
Florida243237322
Georgia1734321018
Hawaii1645184542
Idaho543374444
Illinois42141579
Indiana3819261627
Iowa395182311
Kansas2234322638
Kentucky2634322036
Louisiana2140143133
Maine34693712
Maryland401672916
Massachusetts502283
Michigan281613137
Minnesota3225411335
Mississippi329183915
Missouri20261898
Montana731184731
Nebraska15106334
Nevada1450474350
New Hampshire44393920
New Jersey411482312
New Mexico847413746
New York3710321
North Carolina3321321226
North Dakota132444241
Ohio352432623
Oklahoma1143492745
Oregon4313182830
Pennsylvania463442
Rhode Island49114623
South Carolina3121262229
South Dakota634263932
Tennessee3026261523
Texas193437520
Utah434183012
Vermont48693627
Virginia361615119
Washington27615186
West Virginia1040483546
Wisconsin2921261718
Wyoming248445048
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