Top 10 Most Affordable Hidden Gem Colleges 2024

most affordable hidden gem colleges

Key Takeaways:

  • Our top two hidden gem schools are Cypress College and San Diego Mesa College.
  • These hidden gem colleges offer solid student resources, diverse degree programs, and tuition discounts to provide value to students.
  • The selection process involved uncovering lesser-known colleges that may lack lofty reputations but excel in tangible student offerings.

Colleges and universities make headlines for a variety of reasons. Many schools are well-known for certain types of degree programs. Others are famous for their sports teams. Still others are infamous for scandals that take place on their campuses. Just because a college is well-known doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best place for students to learn.

Still, you may gravitate towards more popular institutions during your college search. It’s human nature to favor things that others around us also like. Choosing a college is an intensely personal decision, though. It may be wise to consider all your options, not just those with household names.

Featured Programs

This guide will provide another perspective—a set of schools we consider “hidden gems.” These schools lack lofty reputations but may make up for it with:

  • Solid student resources
  • degree programs
  • tuition discounts

There are many other valuable offerings for incoming students.

There are some schools in this group that you may not have ever heard of. Try not to let this deter you. Instead, approach this guide with an open mind and a willingness to learn about lesser-known colleges and universities. With this approach, you may be surprised to find a school that’s ideal for you, not because of its reputation, but because of its tangible resources.

The Selection Process

For this guide, College Values Online editors sought to uncover a set of colleges and universities that offered value to students despite being lesser known. In some ways, this turned out to be a counterintuitive process. To find the answer to the question: “Which great schools are little known?”, we had to look for something that could not be found. In fact, the less we were able to uncover about the schools in question, the more they begged to be placed in the group.

We started by pouring over the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings to find those schools that had been left out of the rankings. This required scouring hundreds of institutions of higher learning, including institutions like:

  • National Universities
  • Regional Colleges
  • Community Colleges
  • Liberal Arts Schools

This search yielded an initial pool of just over 130 schools.

Next, our job was to investigate why the school was unranked by this reputable college rankings publication. Was the omission deserved, or did the school simply opt not to be included in the rankings? We turned to the cornerstone of higher education reputation to begin answering this question—accreditation.  The National Council of Education’s College Navigator tool identified each school’s accreditation. Accrediting bodies included:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • The Higher Learning Commission
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

In cases where the college’s accreditation review date had passed, accreditation was verified on the accrediting body’s website. No school without proper accreditation was considered for this guide.

As another quality indicator, we investigated student outcomes for each accredited institution. This led us to PayScale’s 2023 College Salary Report. Here, we determined a school’s return on investment rank based on a graduate’s average base salary. Schools that ranked high in this report were earmarked for inclusion in our guide of hidden gem colleges.

In keeping with our affordability standards, schools that exceeded tuition costs of $30,000 per year were removed from the pool. Tuition was gathered from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). We reported undergraduate tuition since most schools in this guide offer programs exclusively for undergraduates. After applying this final selection filter, we were left with 46 colleges and universities we call “hidden gems.” This ranking highlights the top 10 most affordable of the hidden gems. These schools have not been ranked but are listed below according to tuition (highest to lowest).

The Schools

#10. Indian River State College

Fort Pierce, Florida


Tuition: $2,764

Why It’s A Gem: Mentoring programs and impressive ROI

Affordable tuition and promising outcomes for graduates make IRSC another Florida hidden gem. This two-year school has over 100 academic programs, including vocational certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s programs. Among these offerings are 15 full degree programs that can be completed entirely online.

Popular fields of study for IRSC students include:

  • Business Administration
  • Registered Nursing
  • Liberal Arts and Sciences

The college also has accredited vocational programs in:

  • Physical Therapy
  • Dental Hygiene
  • Radiologic Technology

As they prepare for the workforce or university transfer, students at Indian River State have plenty of support. Some of the school’s standout services include:

  • Academic Success Coaches
  • Personal and Mental Health Counseling
  • Mentoring Programs

In-state and online students pay just over $2,700 per year in tuition, and they’re positioned to reap a large return on their investment. PayScale reports an average base salary of $61,000 for graduates.

#9. Tallahassee Community College

Tallahassee, Florida


Tuition: $2,026

Why It’s A Gem: Affordability and university transfer rate

Tallahassee Community College prides itself on helping individuals achieve their dreams, regardless of their backgrounds or socioeconomic status. TCC students pay some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, and 80% of graduates will transfer to a four-year university.

Over 16,000 students are enrolled at TCC each year for various reasons. Some pursue non-credit professional development courses. Others seek vocational degrees at the associate’s level. Still others pursue university transfer degrees or a bachelor’s degree in education.

TCC offers programs in 56 different areas of study. Popular disciplines include:

  • General Studies
  • Criminal Justice
  • Nursing, Allied Health
  • Human Development

While nursing graduates stand to make the most money after graduation, PayScale reports above-average earnings of approximately $60,000 for all graduates of Tallahassee Community College.

Student Success Story:

“I graduated from Tallahassee Community College with an AA back in 2015. During my time there, I received an affordable education with some of the most memorable professors in my academic career. TCC is excellent for anyone looking for a stepping stone between high school and university that doesn’t compromise on the quality of schooling, and offers a beautiful campus and ample student resources to boot!” -Ally Sweeten, Freelance Writer

#8. Feather River College

Quincy, California


Tuition: $1,461

Why It’s A Gem: Low tuition and outdoor recreation opportunities

Feather River College is indeed a hidden gem school. This is especially true for students who enjoy the great outdoors. The school’s picturesque location and rural setting make it ideal for individuals who enjoy outdoor activities and recreation as well as those who desire to study a discipline such as:

  • Environmental Science
  • Equine Science
  • Outdoor Recreation Leadership

Despite its appealing aesthetic, the school doesn’t skimp on academics. Certificates and degrees are available in over 50 different areas of study. Popular majors include:

  • Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Nursing
  • Agriculture

FRC is committed to supporting the whole student. To this end, it offers personal counseling and other wellness resources through its Student Wellness & Success Center.

#7. Modesto Junior College

Modesto, California


Tuition: $1,276

Why It’s A Gem: Affordability, inclusivity, and high ROI

A Hispanic-serving institution, Modesto Junior College places diversity as the centerpiece of its mission and values. The school strives to provide equity in education and create an environment of inclusivity for all students. Part of this effort includes providing access to various workforce and academic credentials, including:

  • Professional Certificates
  • University Transfer Degrees
  • Associate’s Degrees

At MJC, students can choose from programs in well over 100 fields of study. Popular majors include:

  • History
  • General Studies
  • Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Nursing
  • Business Administration

The school also offers a Dental Assisting program accredited by the American Dental Association.

MJC offers a robust suite of student support services to support its students throughout graduation. Some of these include:

  • Career and Life Planning
  • Pre-Employment Training
  • Health and Wellness Support
  • Academic Tutoring

MJC’s low tuition costs and high salary potential after graduation makes for one of the best college ROIs in the nation. PayScale estimates that graduates make around $72,000 per year on average.

#6. Shasta College

Redding, California


Tuition: $1,191

Why It’s A Gem: Focus on innovation and affordability

Shasta College is a three-time winner of the Innovation in Higher Education award. It prides itself on providing its students with open access to academic and career success. The school offers one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation. But it still provides high-quality instruction and a supportive environment for students. Shasta’s location in one of the sunniest places on Earth is another clear perk for on-campus students.

In terms of academics, Shasta offers undergraduate degrees and certificates in 80 distinct fields of study. Popular disciplines include:

  • Humanities
  • Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Business Administration

The school also has a dental hygiene program accredited by the American Dental Association.

Students who desire a bachelor’s degree may pursue a university transfer degree from Shasta. They can then complete their studies at a local four-year university. Alternatively, they may pursue Shasta’s own Bachelor of Science in Health Information Management.

Salary prospects for graduates are promising. PayScale reports an average base salary of $60,000 per year for Shasta College alumni.

Student Success Story: I am getting my degree in Health Information Management.  Originally I began looking for accredited medical coding programs and then decided that health information would be a better fit for me (more options in case I wasn’t happy with just coding).  I chose Shasta after looking at many other schools throughout the state that offered similar programs.  I was only going to get an associate’s degree.  As I neared the end of the program one of my professors mentioned that she felt I would be a good candidate for the bachelor’s degree program so I decided to continue my education.  I truly feel like the professors at Shasta really care about their students.  No matter the class, I have had wonderful experiences with all of my professors and I am really grateful to all of them for their assistance and encouragement. – Renea Holliday

#5. Santa Ana College

Santa Ana, California


Tuition: $1,180

Why It’s A Gem: Comprehensive academics and student support

Santa Ana College is a comprehensive and affordable community college in California. It is clearly a hidden gem school for students wanting to enter a lucrative vocational field. Undergraduate certificates and associate’s degrees are plentiful, and the school also offers a bachelor’s degree in occupational health.

Other popular fields of study at SAC include:

  • Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Fire Protection
  • Business Administration
  • Biological and Physical Sciences

The school also has an Occupational Therapy Assistant program accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association. Likewise, Santa Ana’s nursing programs have received accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

Student support services are abundant at SAC. Standout programs include:

  • The Asian Pacific Student Program
  • International Student Services
  • A Health and Wellness Center

Upon graduation, Santa Ana alumni stand to make a large return on their investment. PayScale estimates their average salary to be $67,000 per year.

#4. Solano Community College

Fairfield, California


Tuition: $1,172

Why It’s A Gem: Diversity and affordability

Like many of the hidden gem colleges in this guide, Solano Community College is much more than just a community college. It’s a place where students of all backgrounds can come together to achieve their goals and have their lives enriched in the process. The campus is a diverse one. It’s been designated both a Hispanic-serving institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving IiThe school’s academic offerings are also diverse. Students can elect an undergraduate program in more than 100 different areas of study. Career certificates and two-year degrees are the norm, but a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing is also available. Popular majors at Solano include:

  • Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Business Administration
  • Criminal Justice
  • Psychology

Students can adapt their class schedule to fit into their lives, opting to attend classes during the day, at night, and even online. Targeted student services ensure that all students have equal footing and the opportunity to succeed in their programs of choice.

Despite paying tuition well below the national average, Solano Community College students have lucrative career opportunities after graduation. According to PayScale, alumni make approximately $63,000 per year on average.

#3. Santa Monica College

Santa Monica, California


Tuition: $1,150

Why It’s A Gem: Impressive campus facilities, vibrant student life, and high ROI

Santa Monica College prides itself on being one of the top transfer schools in California. It also provides career certificates and vocational degrees in nearly 100 different fields of study. The school is designated a Hispanic-serving institution and values diversity, equality, and inclusion.

At Santa Monica, popular majors include:

  • Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • Human Development
  • Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Business Administration

The school is also home to associate’s degree in nursing programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Students who desire an on-site bachelor’s degree may pursue the school’s Bachelor of Science program in Interaction Design.

The facilities at Santa Monica College rival those of major universities. The college houses a planetarium, a performing arts center, and the Center for Media and Design. It’s a large school, enrolling more than 21,000 undergraduate students.

Those students who graduate from Santa Monica College will enjoy a high salary potential. PayScale reports an average base salary of $72,000 per year for graduates.

#2. Cypress College

Cypress, California


Tuition: $1,146

Why It’s A Gem: Diversity, ROI, and exceptional student support

Cypress College is a hidden gem college that shines in the area of diversity. The school has been designated both a Hispanic-serving institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution. It’s also socio-economically diverse—a little more than half of enrolled students receive need-based grants.

At Cypress College, diversity doesn’t stop with the student body. The school’s academic offerings also vary widely and encompass nearly 100 different areas of study. Certificates and degrees are numerous, and Cypress also offers one of the state’s only community college bachelor’s degrees. Popular disciplines include:

  • Biological and Physical Sciences
  • Business Administration
  • Vehicle Maintenance and Repair Technologies

Student support services at Cypress rival those of major universities. In addition to academic and career services, students can take advantage of an international students program, LGBTQ+ resources, and special services for disabled students and foster youth.

After graduation, Cypress alumni continue to reap the benefits of their school choice. PayScale reports that the school offers one of the highest ROIs for two-year schools, with graduates earning $72,000 per year on average.

#1. San Diego Mesa College

San Diego, California


Tuition: $1,144

Why It’s A Gem: Low tuition, diversity, and robust student support

San Diego Mesa College is one of the largest community colleges in California. It offers undergraduate certificates and degrees in well over 100 different areas of study. The school is designated both a Hispanic-serving institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution. The school prides itself on its diversity and accessibility. Tuition costs are some of the lowest in the country, and nearly 40% of students receive need-based financial aid.

Popular fields of study at Mesa include:

  • Business Administration
  • General Studies
  • Psychology Biological
  • Physical Sciences

The school is home to several allied health programs, including a physical therapy assistant (PTA) program accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association. The Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology also accredited a radiologic technology program. A bachelor’s degree program in health information management is also available.

Mesa supports its students from enrollment to graduation with over 35 student services. Many of these are targeted towards specific populations, including:

  • Veterans
  • LGBTQ+ Students
  • Foster Youth

Graduates of San Diego Mesa College enjoy a high return on investment. PayScale reports that graduates make a base salary of $70,000 per year on average

How to Find Your Own Hidden Gem Colleges

CVO strives to provide accurate and helpful information on colleges and universities nationwide. We do this to help prospective students find the right school and program. Still, we don’t presume to know the best match for each individual—that’s a decision you must make on your own. Our role is simply to help ensure that the decision you make is the most informed decision possible.

Hopefully, this guide has given you ideas for what to look for in a college so that you can find your hidden gem—the one that’s specifically tailored to your needs and goals for the future. In this section, you’ll find some additional tips for finding that one ideal school that checks all of the boxes for you.

Find Your Why

You probably already know that finding the right college requires some research. What you might not realize is that this process also requires some introspection. If you’re sure you want to pursue your education, but you’re not sure exactly why. It may take a deep dive into your own values and aspirations to begin the college hunt.

There are many valid reasons for seeking a college education. For example, you might want to work towards financial security. If that’s the top reason on your list, looking for a college with a high return on investment is a good strategy. PayScale recently published an online database of colleges and their ROI rankings for this very purpose.

Perhaps you have a specific career you want to pursue. If this is the case, look through college rankings like those at College Values Online for schools specializing in your chosen field. This might be the best place to start.

If you’re like many college hopefuls, finding your why might not be as simple as it sounds. You may not be sure what the end game looks like, but you know you want the college experience. Choosing a school prioritizing student life could be the right move for now.

Discovering your motivation for going to college is an important step. You won’t want to skip it. Not only will this help you steer your search in the right direction, but it will also help you keep going if your search efforts become frustrating. Keeping the end goal in mind can help you maintain your focus and keep your spirits up until you’ve found the school of your dreams.

The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that there are 5,916 postsecondary institutions in the United States. Considering each of these could take longer than it might reasonably take to earn a degree. That’s why it’s important to begin narrowing your search before considering any one college or university. One effective way to do this is by employing the process of elimination. At College Values Online, our editors use this process regularly when developing college rankings. When using the method, they apply filters to a large selection of schools to target those worth a closer look. In this section, we’ll identify some of the filters we use routinely and provide instructions on how to use them to find your ideal college.

Tuition Filter

Also known as the affordability filter, the tuition filter can help you identify colleges and universities that fit within your higher education budget. Ruling out schools that exceed the amount of tuition you can afford is a good first step since it can keep your expectations in check while saving you time. After all, there’s no sense in getting your hopes up about a particular school if it’s outside of your budget. Plus, your time may be better spent focusing on those schools that you can afford. A good source of information regarding a particular school’s tuition and fees is the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator tool.

Of course, tuition is just one indicator of affordability. If you are considering applying for financial aid, including grants and scholarships, other factors must be considered.  For example, if a school’s tuition exceeds your budget but offers scholarships you may be eligible for, it could be worth earmarking. You can find hundreds of scholarship opportunities at websites like FastWeb and If you have your eye on a specific school, then you’ll also want to visit that school’s website for information on any available scholarships. Don’t forget about other financial aid opportunities, such as grants and work-study programs.

Program/Major Filter

Not all schools offer the same educational programs, so if you have a major already in mind, then you’ll want to keep that at the forefront of your college search. Some schools specialize in certain areas of study. Think liberal arts colleges versus engineering schools, for example. To find schools that excel in the discipline you’re considering, you might want to peruse college rankings like those at College Values Online or U.S. News & World Report. You can also use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to search for popular majors at specific schools you’re interested in attending.

Schools specializing in certain majors will hire faculty members with the most experience in these fields. Faculty credentials are typically listed on school websites. If you plan on attending a four-year university, you may want to look for programs whose faculty members hold terminal degrees in their field—this is the highest credential one can earn in the specific discipline.

Location Filter (Including Campus Setting)

If you plan to study on campus, then location could be a very important factor in your college search. For many recent high school graduates, the decision to study near home or go away to college is a big one. For those students who decide to leave home, their college search can become quite broad.  When considering where to attend college, you should consider climate, cost of living, and population.

Another factor related to location is the campus setting. In the U.S., there are three basic types of campus settings: rural, suburban, and urban. Think about whether you’d prefer to study away from it all, in a small town, or in the midst of a big city. There are advantages and disadvantages to each choice. For example, a rural school might offer more outdoor recreation opportunities, while a big city offers more cultural experiences. Still, each school is unique, so you’ll want to do your research before making any assumptions about the area.

Size Filter

Colleges and universities in the US vary widely in size. Some small liberal arts colleges are more like high schools in terms of student population. Others, like state universities, for instance, could fill a stadium.  In the U.S., small schools have enrollment numbers of less than 5,000. Large schools have more than 15,000. In a small school, you can expect to attend small classes and have one-on-one time with the instructor. With large schools, lecture halls filled with hundreds of students are common, and you may never speak to the professor face to face. While one type of school isn’t objectively better, some students perform better in more intimate learning environments. Others thrive in a bustling community of scholars.  It can be difficult to know whether a small or large school would suit you best, but there are some questions you can consider that might help you come to a determination:

  • Did you attend a large or small high school, and what was your experience?
  • Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
  • How would you feel if your professor never learned your name?
  • Are you okay with being taught by a teaching assistant rather than a professor?
  • Do you have an interest in college sports?
  • Do you want to design your own major?
  • Can you learn independently, or do you require a lot of assistance?
  • How interested are you in extracurricular activities such as clubs and student organizations?
  • Are you interested in joining a sorority or fraternity?
Student Satisfaction Filter

There are many different indicators of a college’s performance, but none may be more advantageous to prospective students than student satisfaction. Student satisfaction scores can give you a glimpse into the personal experiences of students who have attended a specific college or university in the past. Online databases like GradReports allow users to search for reviews of schools around the country. The site currently has reviews for over 2,300 accredited schools.

Time-To-Completion Filter

When we think about a college investment, money is typically the first thing that comes to mind. When you decide to pursue post-secondary education, you’ll also invest in another important resource—your time. Since it’s arguably just as valuable, you’d be wise to consider just how much time you want to invest in the college experience. Perhaps the most important choice you’ll want to make regarding your investment of time is whether to attend a two-year or four-year school. Even this choice isn’t always a clear-cut one, though. For instance, some two-year schools offer bachelor’s degrees, and some four-year schools offer accelerated tracks and degree completion programs. Before putting a school on your list of colleges to investigate further, make sure you know how much time you’ll need to spend there before earning a credential.   

Online/Hybrid Learning Filter

Online learning in higher education is more popular than ever before. While they were once reserved for working adults and other nontraditional students, online classes have become a regular college experience. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 60% of undergraduate students took at least one online course in the Fall of 2021. This represents almost 10 million college students across the United States. Twenty-eight percent of students took all of their courses online.  

Whether you take classes online or on-campus (or a combination of the two) is a personal choice, and each has clear advantages. Whatever option you prefer, you’ll want to ensure the school you choose accommodates your desired learning modality. While most colleges offer some classes and degrees online, this can vary by program and change from year to year. You’ll want to make sure the program you’re interested in is available in the format you prefer before you decide on a school.

Examine the Remaining Schools

After you’ve applied all applicable tuition filters, it’s time to examine the schools that remain on your list with a higher level of scrutiny. The number of colleges and universities on your list may vary, but ideally, it will be less than ten. Your job now will be to examine each of these schools in more detail and find that one hidden gem that’s best for you.


Many people decide to attend college to broaden their horizons. This could mean seeing new places, having new experiences, and meeting new kinds of people. If the latter sounds appealing, you may want to consider a school’s diversity. Attending a diverse college or university might be particularly important if you attended a relatively homogenous high school or come from an area lacking diversity in its population.

Of course, diversity is more than just meeting people who look different than you. In college, a diverse student and faculty population can enhance the learning experience, exposing you to different cultures and experiences you may not have access to otherwise.

A diverse college campus can also have other advantages. Important principles such as equity and inclusion are celebrated in such an environment.  Students are given the opportunity to interact with classmates and professors from various backgrounds, preparing them for success in a diverse workplace setting.

When looking for your hidden gem school, there are various ways to learn about a school’s diversity. For example, the United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard reports a college’s diversity in race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. Here, you can find out what percentage of the student body receives federal financial aid based on income. You can also discover how many students and faculty come from diverse backgrounds, including Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian.

Campus Facilities

If you’re planning to attend college on campus (rather than via distance learning), then it may be a good idea to research the types of campus facilities available. Typically, the larger the school, the bigger and better the campus facilities will be, but exceptions exist. Some smaller universities and community colleges have impressive facilities that rival larger ones.

You may not be interested in every facility on campus, especially if you’re considering a larger school. Try to focus on those facilities that you know you’ll use, such as those related to your major or in your academic department. Other facilities to pay particular attention to include the recreation and fitness center, student housing, and the campus library.

Technology: Resources and Support

In recent years, technology has become increasingly important in higher education. Technology can affect your college experience in various ways, so it is crucial to research what colleges and universities offer in this area before shortlisting them.  

Since technology is such a vast field, resources in this department can take on many different forms. At a minimum, you can expect the school to offer high-speed internet access for on-campus students. Depending on the school and program, you may be offered much more regarding technological resources and support. Here are some of the technology services and products to look for as you’re searching for your hidden gem school:

  • Online learning management platforms
  • Multimedia-equipped facilities and classrooms
  • Technology support/help desk
  • Cybersecurity services
  • Mobile applications for students

Student Services

Although a quality education may be why you choose to attend college, it might not be the only thing you receive when you enroll. Aside from direct instruction in the classroom (whether physical or virtual), you’re likely to be eligible for much more. All of these extras are referred to as student services. Student services are available at no extra cost once they’ve paid tuition and fees.

The type and quality of student services can vary widely from one college or university to the next. It can be important to make yourself aware of the services typically available and what they usually consist of. While you may or may not take advantage of all the services a school offers, it might be helpful to know what is offered. If there’s a particular service you know you’ll need, such as math tutoring or disability services, for instance, then you’ll want to confirm that this specific service is offered at your hidden gem school.

Here are some of the services commonly offered by colleges and universities in the United States:

Academic Services
  • Academic advising
  • Subject-specific tutoring
  • Writing assistance
  • Research assistance
  • Test-preparation
Counseling Services
  • Personal counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Wellness resources
  • Peer support
  • Group therapy
  • Crisis intervention services
Career Services
  • Resume preparation assistance
  • Mock interviews
  • Job placement services
  • Networking opportunities
  • Alumni support
  • Internship opportunities
  • Mentor support
Services for Special Populations
  • Disability services
  • LGBTQ+ services
  • Veterans services
  • Foster youth services
  • Neurodivergent student services

Student Life

Student life is a factor that many people consider when evaluating colleges and universities, especially those who intend to study on campus. Many students pursue higher education not just for learning but also for the experience. For these students, what a school has to offer in terms of student life may be just as important as academic quality.

When evaluating a college or university’s student life opportunities, you may need to do as much self-reflection as research. Ask yourself the following questions, and then use the answers to determine what type of college experience you’d prefer:

  • What kinds of student clubs and organizations are you interested in?
  • Does Greek life intrigue you?
  • Will you live on campus or off campus?
  • Do you want to meet new people, or are you happy with your current friend group?
  • Do you enjoy structured activities, or do you prefer having free time?
  • Do you enjoy playing sports or watching sports recreationally?
  • Are you interested in pursuing campus leadership positions?
  • Would you visit on-campus art galleries or museums if you had the opportunity?
Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Student-to-faculty ratio is a factor commonly considered by prospective college students when looking for their ideal school. This ratio refers to the average number of students in a class for every one professor or faculty member. Many students prefer schools with lower student-to-faculty ratios. These schools can provide students with one-on-one attention from professors, which could enhance their learning. There are other benefits to low student-to-faculty ratios, too. When fewer students are in each class, these students tend to interact more, which can contribute to a more vibrant and collaborative learning environment. You may feel more comfortable speaking up in smaller classes, whether asking questions or contributing to a class discussion. If this is important to you, you may want to look for a school with low student-to-faculty ratios.

There are various ways to determine the student-to-faculty ratio of a given college or university. For example, you can search the National Center for Education Statistics using its College Navigator tool.  Just type in the name of the school in question in the search field, click on the appropriate entry and view the student-to-faculty ratio listed in the top portion of the results. Generally speaking, ratios of less than 15 to 1 are considered low, while those above 20 to 1 are considered high. Remember, though, that your experiences at any university may vary, regardless of its student-to-faculty ratio.

Financial Aid Opportunities

For some students, financial aid opportunities are nice perks that can help ease the transition to college. For others, they represent the difference between being able to afford tuition or not. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, it’s important to research the types of financial aid offered by the schools you’re considering attending.  Here are some types of financial aid to look for as you consider specific colleges and universities.


Many schools offer their own scholarships, but these can vary by school, department, and even program. Some types of scholarships are need-based, meaning they consider applicants’ financial situation when awarding funds. Other scholarships are merit-based and consider the student’s qualifications, including grade point average, standardized test scores, and other indicators of student achievement, such as extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. Some colleges and universities consider both need and merit when awarding scholarships.

Work-Study Programs

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. offer work-study programs for students interested in earning money towards the cost of their tuition. The federal government usually funds these programs based on a student’s financial need. Work-study opportunities are ideal for students who wish to gain hands-on experience in their fields while working to pay for school. These programs are often better options for students than other types of part-time jobs since they can be scheduled around college classes.

Tuition Discounts

When most students think of financial aid, their minds usually go to loans and scholarships. Indeed, these may be the most common college financial assistance. There are other, lesser-known options, though. For example, some schools offer tuition discounts for certain students, such as legacy students—the children of parents who also attended the same school. Children of professors and other school employees may also receive a lower tuition rate based on their affiliation with the school. Other tuition discounts may be extended to certain populations, such as veterans, transfer students, or online learners.

Apply to Your Hidden Gem School(s)

After examining the colleges and universities on your list of top schools, you may want to begin the application process. Applying to multiple schools is recommended, even if you know which school you prefer. This is to ensure that you keep your options open, just in case something happens that is out of your control or if you have a last-minute change of heart.

While the application process for various colleges and universities in the U.S. can be similar, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the exact specifications of each school you’re interested in. You must follow these specific instructions to the letter if you want to be considered for enrollment. Visit the school’s website and learn as much as possible about admission requirements and the application process. Reach out to an admissions counselor and express your intent to apply. These professionals will walk you through the process of completing your application.

For your application to be considered, you will often need to adhere to specific deadlines, which will vary from one school to another. Make a schedule and mark these dates on your calendar so you don’t miss a deadline.

Here are some of the common admissions requirements for colleges and universities in the United States:

  • Minimum grade point average (GPA)
  • Standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, etc.)
  • Completed application
  • Application fee
  • Personal essay or statement
  • Complete academic transcript

Remember that you don’t have to complete the college application process alone. There are people around you who are ready and willing to help—all you have to do is ask. Teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, parents, and friends can all be good resources. Ask them to review your application with you and give their honest feedback. Ask them to look for any errors or room for improvement on your application essay. Spend the time necessary to ensure you put your best foot forward on each college application.


Finding your hidden gem college can be difficult, but with a little guidance, it’s not impossible. Use the tips in this guide and support from the trusted mentors in your life to narrow down the list of colleges and universities to that one special school. Once you have your acceptance letter in hand, you’ll no doubt find that it was well worth the time and effort you spent researching and choosing the school of your dreams!


  • College Navigator
  • Payscale
  • U.S. News and World Report
  • U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard