Best schools for graduating with no debt (that you can actually get into)
These 15 schools result in the lowest debt for students and have at least a 50% acceptance rate
It's no secret that wealthy schools like Harvard and Columbia are able to offer significant financial aid packages to students from lower-income families. If you can get into an elite college, chances are you'll probably be taken care of if you can't afford the high price tag.
However, these schools are also extremely selective and highly competitive. Elite schools are usually not accessible for most students given their low acceptance rates.
The student loan crisis has left many of today's college students reluctant to use loans to pay for college. So which schools are the best option for students who want to graduate with no debt, but don't have the grades or extracurriculars to get into Ivy League colleges?
We looked at colleges where graduates take out the lowest amount in federal student loans that accept at least half of applicants to find out which low-debt schools are accessible to your average student.
|School||Acceptance Rate||In-State Tuition and Fees (2021-22)||Median Alumni Debt|
| Moody Bible Institute ||97.51%||$14,335||$8,367|
| CUNY York College ||52.76%||$7,358||$9,632|
| CUNY New York City College of Technology ||79.07%||$7,320||$9,920|
| CUNY Medgar Evers College ||78.48%||$7,352||$10,281|
| CUNY Queens College ||53.49%||$7,538||$11,409|
| Brigham Young University ||69.25%||$6,120||$11,738|
| CUNY City College ||50.54%||$7,340||$11,999|
| The University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley ||82.39%||$9,541||$13,068|
| Brigham Young University - Idaho ||97.01%||$4,416||$13,113|
| California State University - Monterey Bay ||85.62%||$7,218||$13,647|
| Southern Utah University ||75.56%||$6,726||$13,661|
| California State University - Los Angeles ||76.48%||$6,785||$13,821|
| MidAmerica Nazarene University ||63.76%||$33,840||$14,259|
| California State University - Dominguez Hills ||81.20%||$7,060||$14,266|
| California State University - Stanislaus ||89.32%||$7,644||$14,301|
Moody Bible Institute
The Moody Bible Institute is a private Christian college in Chicago, where nearly all students who apply are accepted. All undergraduate programs have a religious emphasis and include biblical and theological training. The college offers bachelor's programs in religious studies such as youth ministry, biblical languages, Jewish studies, and ministry leadership, and fields such as communications, elementary education, and human services.
The secret to Moody's low median debt rate is likely donor funding, which covers any gaps between federal funding and tuition for undergraduates who live on campus in Chicago. Students still pay for room and board, and those who live off campus pay $380 per credit hour for tuition.
The City University of New York - York College, New York City College of Technology, Medgar Evers College, Queens College, and City College
Graduates of schools in the CUNY system have some of the lowest student loan debt in the country. Median debt for graduates was below $12,000 at every CUNY college, although only five had acceptance rates above 50%.
These five New York colleges are affordable college options for students who live in-state, resulting in graduates with lower median student loan debt when they finish their program. The schools also serve a higher rate of students from low-income families (between 47-61%). Low tuition costs for New York residents coupled with affordable rates mean just 10% of students take out federal loans at most of the CUNY colleges.
Some noteworthy funding opportunities from New York State that probably help offset the cost include the TAP grant for dependent students with family incomes below $80,000 and the Excelsior Scholarship, which covers tuition for any CUNY or SUNY schools for students and families who earn less than $125,000 per year.
Brigham Young University - Utah and Idaho campuses
The Utah and Idaho BYU campuses offer a strong option for students seeking a low-cost religious education. Both offer very low tuition rates for Latter-day Saints, and Utah students also benefit from the BYU Cougar Grant, which covers any gaps for Pell recipients.
Under 20% of students take out federal loans to pay for college, and the majority of students come from families earning $75,000 per year or less, especially at the flagship campus in Utah. About two-thirds of students come from families earning less than $75,000 at the Idaho campus, which has an acceptance rate of 97%. Comparatively, the Utah location is more affordable and serves more students from lower income brackets, but is more selective with an acceptance rate of 69%.
It's important to note that these schools are more expensive for those who aren't members of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley
Affordability is a key focus at the University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley campus, and the school has been recognized for its low cost to students. Most notably, UTRGV covers tuition gaps for students, and recently raised the program's income limit from $75,000, which covered 91% of students, to $125,000 per year. It also offers a guaranteed tuition plan, meaning students won't see an increase in their tuition for four years, and those taking a full 12 credits can take additional classes for free each quarter.
Texans also benefit from the strong financial aid options available from the state for residents, including the TEXAS and TPEG grants. All in all, only a third of students take out federal loans to cover the cost of college, and graduates owe a median of $13,068.
California State University - Monterey Bay, Los Angeles, Dominguez Hills, Stanislaus
The CSUs are a great option for California residents who want to finish college with as little debt as possible. Graduates of these four schools have some of the lowest median student loan debt in the country and in California. These schools primarily serve students from families who earn $48,000 or less per year and accept at least 75% of applicants, making them accessible options for higher education.
Between 22% and 39% of students at these colleges take out federal loans depending on the school, which is lower than the median for all colleges (53%). Graduates owe a median of around $13,500 to $14,500 when they finish their degree. California residents benefit from the low tuition rates at these schools alongside extra funding like the Cal Grant, which covers up to $3,354 at CSU schools.
Southern Utah University
Graduates of public school Southern Utah University tend to finish with low debt compared to most other schools with high acceptance rates, making the university a good option for Utah residents who don't want to attend BYU.
The university serves fewer low-income students compared to other public schools, with student family incomes more evenly distributed across brackets. Just under half of students take out federal loans, and they graduate with a median of $13,661 in federal student loan debt.
The university offers a wide range of scholarships that help bring down tuition costs further, although most are merit-based and have GPA, ACT, or SAT score requirements. Funding is available for first-year students and transfer students. Southern Utah University is also a participant in the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, which offers lower tuition rates for residents of neighboring states in the West and Southwest, including Alaska and Hawaii.
MidAmerica Nazarene University
Graduates of this private Christian university in Kansas owe a median of just under $15,000 when they earn their degree. Tuition and fees are much higher than other colleges on this list at nearly $34,000.
While MNU doesn't provide much public information about scholarship options, federal data shows 69% of students receive grant aid at the college with an average grant package of $18,319. Six in ten students take out loans to help pay for college, and MNU serves students from all financial backgrounds, which may make it easier for the college to offer more funding for students from lower income families.
The university also offers the Pioneer Pledge to help graduates who earn a "modest" income after college pay their student loans.
Trends that Keep Student Debt Low
- Financial aid models that bridge the gap for students. Many of these schools offer programs that cover gaps in tuition after federal and state aid. Looking for schools that offer funding guarantees can help lower the cost of college, although students may still have to cover charges like room and board or textbooks.
- Low tuition at public schools and strong state funding for students. Public schools tend to offer lower tuition rates but have high acceptance rates and can make a big dent in how much students owe after college. This factor coupled with funding from the state can allow many students to graduate debt free, or close to it.
- Funding at religious schools. A handful of schools with religious affiliations are able to cover additional costs for more students thanks to donor funding. Some of these schools also seem to attract students from a wide variety of income brackets, which helps even out the cost for those from lower-earning families.
All data comes from federal sources including College Scorecard and IPEDS. Median debt comes from College Scorecard and reflects the median federal student loan debt for college graduates. Admission rates are from IPEDS for the 2020-21 school year. Published in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees are for the 2021-22 school year, the latest available, The percentage of Pell recipients and students who took out federal loans are from IPEDS for the 2019-20 school year, the latest available. Information on students' financial backgrounds come from College Scorecard in 2016, sourced from the Education Data Initiative.
Our study looked at colleges that offer undergraduate degrees and primarily graduate students at the bachelor's level or higher. We limited our study to schools that had at least 100 students included in the median debt, admitted at least 100 students, and had an acceptance rate of 50% or higher.