The 20 most affordable small colleges in the U.S.

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For many college applicants, schools with smaller student bodies are ideal. Small colleges can provide students with more opportunities to lead, learn and get involved than they’d have on a larger campus. 

While the experience at a small college has a lot of offer, it can come at a price. With fewer students paying tuition, small colleges often have higher prices per student. 

That doesn’t have to be the case, though. Our new rankings reveal the 20 most affordable small colleges in the U.S.

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Key findings: Ranking small colleges in the U.S.

  • Smaller colleges cost $5,470 more in tuition and fees per year. Smaller colleges’ tuition and fees averaged $27,796 for 2016, compared with the average tuition and fees of $22,326 across all colleges, based on Peterson’s data
  • The 20 most affordable small colleges have tuition and fees that are all $7,000 or less. This means that the most affordable colleges offer savings of $20,750 in tuition and fees compared to average small colleges. Three of the top colleges even have tuition-free initiatives that effectively put these costs at $0. 
  • Public colleges are the best option for affordable tuition. Of these 20 most affordable colleges, 17 are state and local public colleges. Interestingly, seven of the cheapest small colleges are in Oklahoma.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

The 20 most affordable small colleges

With smaller student populations, each student can have their own place and role on campus. But first, they have to figure out how to pay for college

As mentioned, a preference for a small college could carry an average premium of $5,470 a year, adding $21,880 to the total cost of a four-year degree. However, if that’s the average, which small colleges are the outliers still offering affordable tuition and fees? 

To find out, we surveyed tuition, fees, and average student debt at 626 colleges with graduating classes of 500 students or less. Here are the top 20 cheapest small colleges in the U.S.

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1. College of the Ozarks in Missouri

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,512 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $430 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $0

A private religious university, the College of the Ozarks doesn’t charge tuition. Instead, students work on campus to help cover the costs of education. The college also offers need-based scholarships. 

The college discourages students from taking out student loans, and just 7% of its students graduated with educational debt in 2016. As of the 2017-18 academic year, the Colloeg of the Ozarks reports that its graduates had zero student loan debt.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / KTrimble.

2. Berea College in Kentucky

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,665 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $570 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $7,062

Berea College is another private college that helps students pay no tuition. The Tuition Promise Scholarship covers all remaining tuition costs that a student faces after other aid and scholarships are applied. The college’s site estimates the scholarship’s value at more than $155,000 over four years. 

While about two thirds of the college’s students rely on loans to help cover room, board and other educational costs, the low average balance reflects the great deal that this college offers.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / IMCBerea College.

3. Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 599 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $2,050 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $10,714

At No. 3 is another Kentucky private college, Alice Lloyd, that’s tuition-free. It offers a tuition guarantee that students will pay nothing out of pocket for their tuition costs for up to 10 semesters. 

There is a catch. Students only get the guarantee if they are from the school’s “service area,” which includes 108 neighboring counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Nyttend.

4. York College of The City University of New York

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 8,258 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,747 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $4,614

The first public college on this list, York College is part of the City University of New York, or CUNY, network. In-state residents pay low tuition of just $6,330 a year. 

Because of this, just 6% of the college’s graduates have student loans. Those that do borrow boast the lowest average student loan balances on this entire list.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / David Shankbone.

5. Dixie State University in Utah

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 8,993 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,022 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $15,882

Another small public college to make the list, Dixie State University comes in at number 5. The low costs and affordable living expenses in St. George, Utah mean that students can limit borrowing. Plus, just 38% of 2016 graduates left Dixie State with student debt.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Murray Foubister.

6. New Mexico Highlands University

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 2,181 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,550 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $17,312

For students looking for more one-on-one attention, New Mexico Highlands University delivers. Located in Las Vegas, New Mexico, this college’s class sizes are as small as 15 to 35 students for first-year courses. This can help students get big value out of these already-low costs of attending college.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Phelan.

7. New College of Florida

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 861 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,916 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $15,173

Located in Sarasota, Florida, this small school has fewer than 1,000 students and is called the “Honors College of Florida.” It has rigorous courses and provides opportunities for real-world research.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Upstateherd.

8. Southern Utah University

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 8,407 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,530 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $16,892

Located in Cedar City, Utah, Southern Utah University is a mid-size school that unites the individual focus of a small college with the lively campus life of a large one. Thanks to its affordable tuition, the university helps half of its students graduate without loans, and those who do borrow have balances far below the average.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ C.Maylett.

9. College of Coastal Georgia

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 3,529 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $4,434 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,455

The College of Coastal Georgia has the lowest tuition and fees of any college on this list that actually charges out-of-pocket tuition.

Students here do borrow higher student loan balances, with the average over $25,000. However, savvy students can take advantage of more than 40 scholarships, federal student aid and other funding to limit debt.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Jud McCranie.

10. Cameron University in Oklahoma

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 4,444 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,970 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,019

Cameron University is a small public college that focuses on both academic and career success. 

It even offers “The Cameron University Guarantee” that students will be prepared for their careers. If a future employer finds gaps in a graduate’s qualifications, the college will provide additional education at no cost.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Crimsonedge34.

11. Rogers State University in Oklahoma

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 3,889 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,000 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $16,164

While Rogers State University has a recognized online college program for distance students, it has its flagship campus in Claremore, Oklahoma, as well as campuses in Bartlesville and Pryor. 

To help students further afford its already-low costs, the university also provides a range of merit- and need-based scholarships.

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12. East Central University in Oklahoma

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 4,428 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,279 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $19,170

Another Oklahoma college, East Central University’s staff and instructors advise students and help them get the exact college experience they want. This college also costs $3,000 less per year than the national average for public four-year schools, according to College Board.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Brad Holt.

13. Emporia State University in Kansas

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 3,702 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,178 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,433

A small school in Kansas, this public college’s liberal arts and teaching programs are among its most popular. Emporia State University also offers a variety of certificate and licensure programs to help students and professionals build their resumes.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ichabod.

14. The University of Texas of the Permian Basin

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 4,478 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,060 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $17,578

For college applicants who are interested in a degree that will get them hired, The University of Texas of the Permian Basin delivers. This college is often among the top five in Texas for both employment and graduate school placements, according to the school’s site.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Billy Hathorn.

15. Southeastern Oklahoma State University

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 3,132 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,450 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $20,983

On top of its already-low tuition costs, Southeastern Oklahoma State University provides primarily merit-based scholarships to help students pay for school. Along with the usual perks of small colleges, this makes the university a worthy destination for standout students.

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16. Dickinson State University in North Dakota

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,381 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,339 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,936

Next is Dickinson State University, which boasts a student-faculty ratio of 10-to-1. This small college provides students with personalized support, as well as the opportunity to earn anything from a nursing degree to a bachelor’s degree in accounting or music.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Magicpiano.

17. University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 850 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,270 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $22,760

With fewer than 1,000 students and a trimester-based schedule, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma provides a unique educational environment.

The college also offers direct assistance to students, and incoming freshmen are automatically evaluated for institutional scholarships. In 2016, 76% of the college’s freshmen received such a scholarship.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / JJ Francais.

18. Southwestern Oklahoma State University

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 4,510 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,690 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $21,282

With over 100 fields of study, Southwestern Oklahoma State University is a small college that offers the choices and opportunities found at a bigger campus. According to the school’s site, its low costs also make it a standout for value, with a net price that beats comparable schools by $1,000 a year.

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19. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 5,514 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,816 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $25,263

This North Carolina university is a smart choice for studying liberal arts at an affordable cost. The college offers low tuition, and graduates leave with student loan balances that they can manage as they pursue their dream careers.

Image Credit: Wikipedia / Pilotguy.

20. Northeastern State University in Oklahoma

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,923 
  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,207 
  • Average student loan balance among graduates with debt: $23,840

Founded as a Cherokee Nation school and later purchased by the state of Oklahoma, Northeastern State University is a college rich in both local history and a traditional college atmosphere. 

84% of undergrad courses have fewer than 30 students. Popular majors at this college include education, biology, psychology, accounting and business.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Caleb Long.

How to choose an affordable small college

Smaller schools have a lot to offer students, from intimate classrooms to charming campuses. Fortunately, you don’t have to face sky-high costs or take on federal or private student loans to get the small college experience. Follow these tips to find a small college that fits your budget:

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Searching smart

  • Look stateside first. If you want to attend a smaller school, you should first check out public colleges in your state. All of the tuition and fees estimates in these rankings assume that the student is a resident paying in-state tuition. That’s a big reason why 17 of the 20 most affordable colleges are public, regional colleges, as this tuition is subsidized for residents. 
  • Attend a community college and transfer. Many community colleges have the same small class sizes as smaller four-year colleges and are often comparable in quality of education and academic rigor. Completing your first 60 credits at a city or community college, then transferring, saves an average of $11,377 over attending just a four-year college. 
  • Apply to your top picks and compare aid packages. Don’t let sticker shock or high tuition keep you from applying to smaller colleges. These colleges often have fewer students vying for resources and might be more likely to offer scholarships or other aid to attract top students. Apply to several colleges of interest so that you can compare offers in your financial aid award letters. You can then decide on a college knowing exactly what you’d pay out of pocket (or borrow) to attend each one.

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Prioritize affordable colleges

Keeping cost top of mind when choosing a school can have a huge impact on what your education costs and how much student debt you owe. Prioritize affordable colleges now, and you’ll benefit greatly when you’re repaying student loans.

Student Loan Hero used the most recent college data from Peterson’s to survey and rank these small colleges. For these rankings, small colleges were defined as those with between 20 and 500 students in the most recent graduating class (not including transfer students). 

These small colleges were ranked by their combined resident tuition and fees of the most recent year reported (full weight), as well as the average indebtedness of students leaving that college with debt (weighted at half). Some colleges were filtered out for incomplete data reported to Peterson’s. Undergraduate enrollment data was sourced from either U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings or the college’s .edu domain.

This article originally appeared on StudentLoanHero.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

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