Montana State University is a bargain for college students, according to two new online national ratings.

“America’s 100 Best College Buys” picked MSU as the only Montana college on its list for 2013.

At the same time, the new federal College Scorecard website, announced by President Barack Obama in last week’s State of the Union speech, reports that MSU’s costs are low by national standards and its graduation rate is in the middle.

“I agree, I think we are a good buy,” Chris Fastnow, MSU director of planning and analysis, said Tuesday.

Jim Rimpau, vice president for student success, said parents and students do check out such national college rankings. The problem with national comparisons is that they tend to give a very large-scale view, when what really matters most to individual students is whether a college has the right academic programs and majors for them.

National ratings are “a good place to start,” when hunting for colleges, Rimpau said. But, he quipped, “Your mileage may vary.”

The “100 Best College Buys” picks colleges where freshmen have high school grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores above the national average. The costs for tuition, fees, room and board for out-of-state students must be either below the national average — $35,691 — or no more than 10 percent higher than that average.

MSU is listed as costing $14,780 a year for in-state students and $28,130 for out-of-state students, and having an average freshman ACT score of 24, a point above the national average of 23. The full report can be found online.

The new federal College Scorecard shows that MSU typically costs instate students $12,489 a year after grants and scholarships.

The federal College Scorecard also shows that MSU’s graduation rate is 51 percent, and the typical federal loan repayment costs MSU students an average of $189 a month, both in the “medium” range nationally. MSU’s loan default rate of 3.4 percent is far lower than the national 13.4 percent.

The College Scorecard has room to report the kinds of jobs graduates land and their average earnings, but that information isn’t yet posted. Rimpau said MSU, which attracts many employers to its career fairs, may look pretty good in that category when that comparative information is available.

MSU’s graduation rate is slightly higher than the University of Montana’s 47 percent on the College Scorecard, but lower than other Western colleges like the University of Colorado at Boulder (68 percent) or Oregon State (61 percent). Fastnow said MSU is an “open enrollment” campus, unlike the other two. MSU has also made raising the graduation rate a goal of its strategic plan.

The new federal College Scorecard is easier to read but has less data than other websites available for comparison-shopping for colleges. The New York Times pointed out that the U.S. Department of Education’s own College Navigator has more data and charts, and allows students to compare colleges side-by-side.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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