Jon O'Donnell Updated on October 4, 2017

Show of hands: how many of you parents out there have asked your kids where they want to go to college and were answered with “Hawaii.”

Har har, right? Unless you already live in Hawaii, going to college there probably seems wholly impractical.

But before you dismiss the idea, consider that Hawaii was just ranked among the top five states for providing the best college value. That’s according to a landmark research study we just completed on Student Debt and Future Earnings.

Which other states ranked well? The top ten states are:

  1.   Wyoming
  2.   California
  3.   Connecticut
  4.   New Jersey
  5.   Hawaii
  6.   New York
  7.   Massachusetts
  8.   Washington
  9.   Illinois
  10.   Maryland

Does that mean you should push your kids to pack up and head to one of these states for college? Not necessarily. There’s a lot that goes into working the equation that will get you the most bang for your college tuition buck.

And yes, part of that equation is figuring in airfare or other transportation costs to far-flung locations—so Hawaii may not be a cost-effective choice for out-of-staters after all. (We let you off the hook. You’re welcome.)

Let’s look at some other things you should consider when trying to find the best value.

Compare college debt to potential earnings

The rankings above were compiled by looking at the average ratio of debt to earnings for graduates of schools in every state and Washington D.C.

The debt-to-earnings ratio is important because it doesn’t just compare post-graduation earnings. It also takes into account the amount of debt a graduate has to take on.

For example, say Student X goes to Big Name College. Yearly tuition is about $62,000. After graduation, Student X has to pay out about 40% of his or her take-home pay for loan debt, making it hard to build long-term financial security—or even move out and get an apartment.

Student Y chooses Mid-Atlantic State University. In-state tuition is about $17,500 per year. Student Y graduates with roughly the same starting salary as Student X, but only has to pay 13% of his or her take-home pay toward loans. That leaves Student Y with more opportunities to establish a sound financial future and start living as an independent adult.

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A cheat sheet for doing the math

Figuring out how to crunch these numbers can be frustrating. The fact is, you’re not likely to know the out-of-pocket cost for each school your child is considering until he or she receives financial aid packets from those institutions. Financial aid offerings can vary widely.

But once you get that info—or even before, if you want to plug in some “guesstimate” numbers—head over to our free Nitroscore tool. Using this tool, you can get a score for the potential value of schools your child is considering.

Enter in a college and major, and then click “Refine my Score.” Enter in values for various forms of financial aid, and what you expect you’ll contribute toward college costs. Then, click “Next” and work through the rest of the steps. At the end, click “Compare” to save your results and run another scenario.

When you’re done, you should have an apples-to-apples view of how different school choices may affect future finances.

Want more insight to school value?

We’ve just completed a massive study on college debt and future earnings at 4,600 U.S. schools. We’ve completed rankings for:

  • The top 20 national universities
  • The top 20 liberal arts colleges
  • The top 20 public universities
  • The top 50 school with the most student debt
  • The top 50 schools with the highest potential earnings
  • The most debt per student by state
  • The highest earnings per student by state
  • The best valued schools

See our special report on Student Debt and Future Earnings to find out how the schools your child is considering may stack up.

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