From swimming in South Dakota’s glacial lakes to biking down volcanoes in Hawaii, experiencing the great outdoors can be an essential part of the student experience. Conveniently, some schools have national parks right on their doorsteps, while others have clubs and organizations dedicated to rugged outdoor pursuits like snowshoeing and rock climbing. Indeed, the nation’s hugely varying natural backdrops – from Florida’s sultry beaches to the rugged canyons of Nevada – effectively form one giant playground for adventure-minded students. Best of all, many schools in or near such stunning surroundings are very reasonably priced, allowing students more money for exploring. Taking the price of tuition and the associated fees into account, the following list is a compilation of the 30 most affordable schools for outdoor enthusiasts in the U.S.
To create this list, we first referenced the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Table 330.10, subtitled the “Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting post-secondary institutions, by level and control of institution: 1963-64 through 2018-19.” This was in order to find schools that charge tuition and fees noticeably below the average costs for 2018-19. As this article is largely based on the cost of out-of-state tuition and fees, we needed to differentiate between the table’s in-state and out-of-state totals. To that end, we also referenced the NCES’ Table 330.20.
We also needed to compare this information with each individual school’s tuition and fees costs. To determine which schools were the cheapest we referenced the following lists:
• Ranker, “The Cheapest Colleges in America”
• U.S. News & World Report, “10 Colleges with Affordable Out-of-State Tuition”
• CollegeStats.org, “Cheapest Colleges”
• CollegeCalc, “Cheapest Colleges in America by Out of State Tuition”
We went on to further confirm tuition and fees rates for individual schools by looking at the information provided on their websites – this information also enabled us to rank the schools by most affordable tuition and fees total.
Finally, we then examined each potential entry’s proximity to fun natural features such as beaches, mountains and lakes, among others, as well as the outdoor-focused recreational clubs and societies on offer at each school.
30. Shepherd University – Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Shepherd University’s out-of-state undergraduates’ tuition and mandatory fees amounted to $18,224 for the 2019-20 academic year. And with extra funds to spend on less academic pursuits, learners may be tempted by the 22-minute car journey to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Thanks to the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, Harpers Ferry offers great white-water rafting, kayaking and fishing opportunities. Students who enjoy strolling in the great outdoors can also enjoy the park’s 20 miles of trails, or link up with the more adventurous 184.5-mile trail that runs through the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Park, which is less than half an hour from the campus by car. Horse riding is also on offer nearby, while golfers can sample the fairways and greens of local country club golf courses Locust Hill and Cress Creek.
29. Grambling State University – Grambling, Louisiana
Just over 35 minutes from Louisiana’s Grambling State University is Lake Claiborne State Park, a preservation area that accommodates a wealth of outdoor pursuits. Angling fans will be pleased to know that the lake is full of fish, including white perch, bream and striped and largemouth bass. The park’s natural surroundings also provide a welcome habitat for campers and hikers. To the northeast of the campus, meanwhile, is the 15,250-acre Lake D’Arbonne, as well as its surrounding 655-acre park. A further five angling jetties are located in the park, in addition to boating platforms, and water skiers are welcome to practice their skills away from the shoreline. With 2020-21 out-of-state undergraduate tuition and fees totalling an affordable $23,606, there should be more funds for outdoor enthusiasts to spend on what they love doing the most.
28. Palm Beach State College – Lake Worth, Florida
Tuition and fees figures for the 2019-20 academic year for non-Floridian bachelor’s students at Palm Beach State College were estimated at a low $16,875. And with such bang for their buck, students will have cash left over to explore beautiful Lake Worth, as well as take in nearby Palm Beach and its endless water sport opportunities. Arguably more exciting for outdoorsy types, however, is Lake Okeechobee – part of the “Glades” and the continental U.S.’ second-biggest freshwater lake. Located around an hour’s drive inland, this is the place to fish for largemouth bass, watch for alligators or explore the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail – on foot, on rollerblades or by bicycle. The around 110-mile trail surrounds the lake, with one stretch across Herbert Hoover Dike.
27. Fitchburg State University – Fitchburg, Massachusetts
Fitchburg State University students take adventure seriously. Indeed, the school’s Outdoor Adventure Club meets every week to plan its next snowshoeing hike, mountain biking trip or rock-climbing excursion. There’s certainly a great deal of wide-open space to explore, much of it within 15 minutes of campus. This includes the 4,500-acre Leominster State Forest and the riverside walking trails of the 300-acre Henry E. Cowdrey Nature Center. Also close to the college is the 1,000-acre Pearl Hill State Park, home to numerous hiking and biking trails and some of Massachusetts’ premier campsites. In fact, out-of-state learners may struggle fitting in all of the park’s 51 encampments. Non-Bay State undergraduates forked out just $16,603 in tuition and fees for the 2019-20 academic year.
26. Louisiana State University at Alexandria – Alexandria, Louisiana
The Alexander State Forest Wildlife Management Area is located just ten miles southwest of Louisiana State University at Alexandria. And despite its name, the site isn’t totally dominated by trees. Within the forest’s boundaries is the 2,600-acre Indian Creek Lake, which is a popular locale for both anglers and water skiers. A 300-acre campsite borders the lake, and trailer and tent spots with electricity and running water are available to hire. Fortunately, learners won’t struggle to afford a trip to the site, as the school’s competitive rates means out-of-staters paid just $15,496 in annual tuition and fees for the 2019-20 academic year. This means that students could afford to explore the protected 6,000-acre Grand Cote National Wildlife Refuge site and enjoy spotting various waterfowl species – as well as, occasionally, the odd bald eagle and Louisiana black bear.
25. Dalton State College – Dalton, Georgia
Located near the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dalton State College no doubt impresses arriving non-Georgian students with its green surroundings. What’s more, students won’t be traveling far to enjoy the great outdoors. There are approximately two and a half miles of walking trails in the campus’ adjacent forest, while the school is located on the doorstep of the John’s Mountain Wildlife Management Area. With 24,849 acres to explore, the site is perfect for canoeists, hikers and campers. Plus, a little further afield is Fort Mountain State Park, which boasts 70 campsites, four backcountry campgrounds and is ideal for mountain biking, walking and swimming. Perhaps Dalton State College’s tuition and fees are even more impressive with out-of-staters, who forked out a low $12,668 for the 2019-20 academic year.
24. University of South Dakota – Vermillion, South Dakota
As of 2020, out-of-staters enrolling at the University of South Dakota benefit from a “reduced” tuition and fees price of $12,807 – almost half of the overall 2019-20 national average, and half of what non-residents paid elsewhere that academic year. With academic costs comfortably covered, learners can invest their dollars playing in the Vermillion school’s impressive natural surroundings, which, incidentally, are taken advantage of by the school’s Outdoors Club. The group’s activities include trap shooting, hiking and, during the colder months, snow tubing in Sioux Falls’ Great Bear Recreation Park. The outdoors can also be enjoyed independently; just 15 minutes’ drive from campus, for example, is Clay County Park. Located on a stretch of the Missouri National Recreational River, its 34 acres offer ample opportunities for walking, horse riding and wildlife watching, and visitors are welcome to camp overnight.
23. St. Johns River State College – Palatka, Florida
The price of tuition and fees for out-of-state students enrolled at Palatka’s St. Johns River State College for the 2019-20 academic year was estimated as an affordable $10,347. And adventurous students can put any spare cash to good use, as the Ocala National Forest is around a 40-minute drive away. The forest is home to over 600 waterways and springs, which make for excellent snorkeling, swimming and diving spots. Additionally, winter temperatures are so surprisingly mild that camping is possible all year round. Even closer to campus, meanwhile, is Etoniah Creek State Forest, an 8,679-acre site that offers equestrian, walking and birding trails, as well as hunting and fishing opportunities.
22. South Dakota State University – Brookings, South Dakota
According to Rough Guides, visitors are often moved more by South Dakota’s “wildlife, hiking trails, mountain lakes and memorably scenic highways” than its instantly recognizable landmarks. Fortunately, such remarkable natural beauty is within reach of South Dakota State University students – especially at nearby Oakwood Lakes State Park. Located less than half an hour’s drive from the school’s Brookings campus, the park contains eight glacial lakes suited to summer swimming and boating, while cross-country skiing and ice fishing are possible in winter. Just over 20 miles further north from the park, meanwhile, is Lake Poinsett, where outdoorsy types can camp alongside one of the state’s biggest lakes. And an extended camping trip may be in order for newly arrived out-of-state undergraduates, thanks to the school’s affordable tuition and fees costs, which totaled an estimated $12,676 in 2020-21.
21. Midwestern State University – Wichita Falls, Texas
Enrolling non-Texans at Midwestern State University can expect to pay just over $5,665 per semester for tuition and fees, as of 2020. At nearly $11,330 for the two-semester year, this is just under the overall 2019-20 national average – but an impressive 52 percent less expensive than that year’s typical out-of-state cost. This saving leaves plenty of surplus cash to explore the pretty Wichita Falls surroundings – and because it’s less than ten minutes’ drive from campus, Lake Wichita Park is an excellent place for learners to start. The 234-acre site harbors walking and cycling trails, baseball fields and, intriguingly, a landing runway for model airplane enthusiasts. Also close by is Lake Arrowhead State Park, a great spot for outdoor swimming, angling and equestrian adventures. It’s possible to camp here, too.
20. Black Hills State University – Spearfish, South Dakota
Black Hills State University undergraduates who aren’t from South Dakota or Wyoming faced just $11,742 for their 2020-21 tuition and fees – which is a staggering $20,113 less than the typical yearly out-of-state rate. Because the Northern Black Hills are located practically on the Spearfish-based school’s front door, such a saving is best invested in adventure. On that front, there are nearby mountain bike trails and snowboard and ski tracks to discover, and the entire 125-mile-long by 65-mile-wide Black Hills area is synonymous with dramatic canyons, jutting rocks and placid lakes. Within 90 minutes of the Black Hills State University campus, meanwhile, are more than 2,000 climbing routes and, further afield, there’s Badlands National Park. This 244,000-acre expanse was once described by Lonely Planet as resembling “an ocean someone boiled dry.”
19. Northern State University – Aberdeen, South Dakota
Described by Lonely Planet as “endlessly attractive,” South Dakota is a state of prairies, amazing scenery and, in Mount Rushmore, one of America’s most prominent landmarks. The state is seemingly tailor-made for outdoors enthusiasts and, fortunately, this is also the case at Northern State University’s Aberdeen campus, which is located close to miles of cycling and recreational tracks. Plus, just north of the town is the 210-acre Wylie Park, which is home to softball fields, campsites and even more trails. A little further beyond Wylie Park is the Richmond Lake Recreation Area, where it’s possible to snowmobile and ski as well as sail around the eponymous over 1,000-acre body of water. These local attractions are waiting to be discovered by out-of-state students, who paid just an estimated $11,822 for tuition and fees in 2019-20.
18. Florida State College at Jacksonville – Jacksonville, Florida
With 73,352 acres of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve to explore, including Guana River Estuary and Lake Guana, it’s easy to see why magazine Folio Weekly’s readers voted the habitat “best place to canoe or kayak” for three years in a row from 2007. Naturally, fishing is also popular in the reserve, and there are further opportunities to walk, cycle and horse ride along its trails. Florida State College at Jacksonville’s (FSCJ) downtown campus is just 34 miles away from the reserve, which makes it easily accessible to outdoorsy students. Still, location is one thing, finances is another. Fortunately for out-of-state FSCJ learners, 2019-20 annual tuition and fees amounted to roughly $11,011.
17. Brigham Young University–Hawaii – Laie, Hawaii
Students at Brigham Young University–Hawaii have not one or two, but 12 nearby beaches to choose from. The two closest to campus are Onini Beach and Bathtub Beach, though Kokololio Beach, arguably the prettiest of the local beaches, is only a few minutes further south. Kokololio can be reached from Bathtub via a hiking trail, which takes in scenic tree groves and other greenery on its way to Kokololio’s faultless white sands. A little further inland, meanwhile, is the Hauula Loop Trail, a 2.5-mile walk featuring a beautiful waterfall. The Laie school is managed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and tuition and fees for non-church members was estimated at $15,253 for two semesters – almost 60 percent less expensive than students typically paid at other private institutions in 2019-20.
16. College of Southern Nevada – Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas may be synonymous with casinos and showgirls, but on its doorstep are some of the U.S.’ most intriguing landscapes. Take the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, for example. Just over half an hour’s drive from the College of Southern Nevada, this over 48,000-acre site offers summits of volcanic rock and explorations of low-lying lake beds that have long since gone dry. This is great news for hikers, bikers and horse riders, but not so good for water sport enthusiasts. Fortunately, their needs are catered to by the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which is roughly an hour by car from campus and perfect for fishing and boating. Students won’t be that out of pocket either, because the institution’s out-of-state tuition and fees costs totaled a low $10,317 for 2019-2020.
15. West Virginia University at Parkersburg – Parkersburg, West Virginia
Welding, 3D modeling and business administration all can be pursued at West Virginia University (WVU) at Parkersburg – and if the institution’s curriculum comes across as diverse, then so too does the surrounding landscape. Take Mountwood Park, for example, which is just a 20-minute drive to the east. With more than 50 miles of cycling and walking trails, as well as a disc golf course, horse riding and archery facilities, it’s a true adventurer’s playground. Water-based fun, meanwhile, can be had a little further north, among the nearby Ohio River Islands, which is known for its fine fishing spots. Out-of-state students needn’t worry about having spare cash for outdoor pursuits, either, as WVU Parkersburg tuition and fees amounted to just $9,792 for the 2019-20 academic year.
14. Middle Georgia State University – Macon, Georgia
Middle Georgia State University has five sites across the state, but its main campus is located in Macon, around eight miles from Lake Tobesofkee. As well as the manmade six-mile-long body of water, the surrounding recreation area also boasts the Arrowhead, Claystone and Sandy Beach parks. Water-based activities are arguably the site’s biggest draw, with sailing, boating and swimming all enjoyed around the 35 miles of shore. Non-Georgians will have cash left over to spend on the correct gear as well, as tuition and fees for the 2020-21 academic year cost $11,390.
13. Potomac State College of West Virginia University – Keyser, West Virginia
Thanks to all the state parks, rivers and lakes in close proximity to Potomac State College of West Virginia University, enrolling students are gifted numerous opportunities for outdoor recreational activity. And they’ll have more cash to do so, too, as out-of-staters only spent $12,912 on 2019-20 tuition and fees. Among the most exciting al fresco options is Savage River State Forest, a 54,000-acre habitat ideal for bikers, hikers and anglers. Located around 40 minutes’ drive from the school’s Keyser campus, it’s also a perfect location for wild camping. However, as the forest is home to black bears, visitors should think twice before storing food in their tents. Half an hour’s drive north of the campus, meanwhile, is Dan’s Mountain State Park, which features a fishing pond and offers visitors some spectacular panoramic views.
12. Western Nevada College – Carson City, Nevada
Out-of-state students at Western Nevada College, which has five sites across Nevada but is headquartered in Carson City, paid tuition and fees of $10,618 for the 2019-20 academic year. This comes in safely under the entire U.S. average and less than half that of the out-of-state mean cost, according to 2018-2019 data. Welcome news indeed for outdoor enthusiasts, particularly as Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park Spooner Backcountry is located practically on the school’s doorstep. The 12,000-acre state park accommodates more than 50 miles of cycling, walking and horse riding trails. Furthermore, at the park’s western edge, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, is Sand Harbor, whose 55 acres of beach is a haven for swimmers, boaters and coastal explorers.
11. Broward College – Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Non-Floridians attending Broward College in Fort Lauderdale for the 2019-20 academic year faced just $11,190 in tuition costs. Including fees – which is still over 50% less than the overall national average for 2019-2020. Further savings can be had in the realm of outdoor pursuits, as the Fort Lauderdale institution has its own water sport and ropes adventure facility around 15 minutes by car from its main campus. The nearby Tigertail Lake Recreational Center invites students to try their hand at stand-up paddle boarding, windsurfing or canoeing, among other activities, while sailing and camping trips are also options. Those venturing a little further afield, meanwhile, can explore the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. Located roughly 23 miles from campus, this huge protected site is a great place for fishing, hiking, cycling and wildlife.
10. Bemidji State University – Bemidji, Minnesota
Bemidji State University’s Outdoor Program is well known across the U.S., and adventurous students can take advantage of its cutting-edge climbing wall and the sailing excursions it offers across Lake Bemidji. Just beyond Lake Bemidji, which is adjacent to the Minnesotan school, is its namesake state park – a haven for mountain bikers, boaters and anglers as well as, during the colder months, winter sports enthusiasts. Chippewa National Forest, meanwhile, is only 20 minutes’ drive away, and its wild campgrounds and plentiful trails offer another exciting source for open-air entertainment. Added to Bemidji’s appeal is its excellent value for money, with 2019-20 tuition and fees estimated at $8,940.
9. Bellevue University – Bellevue, Nebraska
Barely 20 minutes’ drive from Nebraska’s capital city of Omaha is Bellevue University, where undergraduate students pay just $250 per credit hour, as of 2020. This translates into a 2020-21 tuition and fee total of no more than $9,420. While that’s over 64 percent less than the 2019-20 general national average, it represents a massive 70 percent saving on that year’s typical private institution rate. Fortunately, there’s plenty in the realm of outdoor recreation on which learners can spend their surplus cash. And the obvious choice, based on its hiking, biking and boating facilities, is the Missouri River waterfront. Even closer to campus, though, is Fontenelle Forest, where conservationists aim to foster “the quiet wild of nature”. With its mixture of forest, wetlands and prairie, the site is an excellent place to discover Mother Nature’s magic first-hand.
8. West Texas A&M University – Canyon, Texas
Since 2019, non-Texan students at West Texas A&M University have faced tuition costs of $9,803, which is just $30 per credit hour more than their in-state counterparts. While this represents a saving of over $14,807 compared to the 2018-2019 overall national average of public universities, it’s an impressive $22,607 less expensive than that year’s non-resident norm for private universities. Luckily, outdoor enthusiasts with some extra cash to splash needn’t travel far for their fix; the school’s Canyon campus is less than 15 minutes’ drive from Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and the site’s main attraction is second only in size to the mighty Grand Canyon. Featuring over 30 miles of horse riding, walking and mountain biking trails, this is the place to come for a couple of days adventuring interspersed by a night underneath under the stars. Also close by is Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling 7,664-acre reserve featuring forest, marshland and prairie.
7. Southern University at New Orleans – New Orleans, Louisiana
Full-time non-Louisianan undergraduates at Southern University at New Orleans paid just $8,900 in tuition and fees for the fall 2020 semester. This total, projected over the course of a full academic year, works out as almost 45 percent less expensive than the overall 2018-19 national average. Finances aside, this is a school big on recreation. Not only is it around 15 minutes’ drive from the historic French Quarter, it’s also perfectly situated close to wildlife-friendly bayous and swamps. For instance, the Barataria Preserve is approximately a half an hour car ride from campus and offers 23,000 acres of marshland and forests ideal for kayakers hoping to spot a swamp rabbit, water snake or even an alligator. There are several miles of trails to explore, too, while the nearby Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge boasts further hiking, canoeing and fishing opportunities in another beguiling New Orleans habitat.
6. University of Hawaii Maui College – Kahului, Hawaii
Barely 15 minutes’ drive from Kahului’s University of Hawaii Maui College is Iao Valley State Park, a 4,000-acre expanse of lush peaks and spectacular rock formations. One such natural attraction is Iao Needle, which stretches around 1,200 feet high and is adorned with tropical green flora. It is surrounded by a network of scenic hiking paths, meaning that the adventurous can look forward to a series of impressive views. Around an hour’s drive in the other direction, meanwhile, is Haleakalā National Park – a volcanic landscape that hosts Maui’s tallest summit and is also the perfect spot for downhill cyclists. Such activities are affordable thanks to the school’s excellent-value tuition and fees, with non-Hawaiians coughing up just $8,406 in 2020-21.
5. South Texas College – McAllen, Texas
The average South Texas College out-of-stater paid just $7,830 for their 2019-20 tuition and fees, which is almost less than half the 2018-19 overall national average. Indeed, the complete cost of attendance for the entire 2018-19 academic year for non-Texans was just over $17,000 – approximately $9,000 less than the typical total elsewhere, according to 2018-2019 figures. With the essentials covered, surplus dollars can be used for less bookish pursuits. Located roughly 50 minutes’ drive from the school’s Pecan campus in McAllen, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is teeming with flora and fauna, including rare animal species like ocelots and burrowing owls. If wildlife spotting isn’t what students are after, however, there’s also the possibility of fishing and hunting.
4. New Mexico Highlands University – Las Vegas, New Mexico
Unlike its Nevada namesake, New Mexico’s Las Vegas is more historic landmark than city of sin, and outdoors enthusiasts will find it an ideal base from which to discover a wealth of al fresco activities. Just over five miles from the city’s New Mexico Highlands University is Storrie Lake State Park, which is a great spot for anglers and water sport fans. A 20-minute drive from campus in the opposite direction, meanwhile, takes visitors to the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge. Featuring at least two nature trails and a driving track, in addition to a wildlife viewing platform, this is a superb location to sample the wild New Mexican landscape. Enrolling out-of-state students may have more funds to explore their natural surroundings as well, as the school’s 2020-21 tuition and fees totaled a low $10,842.
3. Delta State University – Cleveland, Mississippi
For the 2014-15 academic year, Mississippi’s Delta State University students paid just $4,060 per semester in tuition and fees, or $8,121 per year. That’s a staggering $8,197 less than the 2018-2019 national average, and such a significant saving can be invested away from the classroom, particularly at the Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge, which is located just 16 minutes’ drive from the school’s Cleveland campus. The refuge is a great place to spot migrating waterfowl or for more general bird watching, and the site’s 11,600 acres feature a boardwalk, a viewing deck and a butterfly garden. A little further away from campus is the Great River Road State Park, which features a 75-foot observation platform offering superb views over the Mississippi River. Sporty students, meanwhile, are catered for by facilities including Delta State’s on-campus golf course.
2. Sitting Bull College – Fort Yates, North Dakota
For the 2020-21 academic year, students enrolled at North Dakota’s Sitting Bull College only forked out $4,010 for their yearly tuition. Moreover, that year $10,246 was enough to cover learners’ accommodation, food, books and fees. The Fort Yates school is such good value, in fact, that in 2018-19 cost of attendance was almost 75 percent less expensive than the country’s overall yearly average. Students there can explore the enormous Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which literally surrounds the school’s campus and is home to the Sioux Native American people. Learners wishing to catch their dinner can obtain a hunting permit from the tribe. And on top of that, there’s also the option to traverse the hills, lakes and hiking and biking trails of the nearby Standing Rock National Native American Scenic Byway.
1. Brazosport College – Lake Jackson, Texas
Outdoors-loving students arriving at Texas’ Brazosport College are in for a treat, as the school’s Lake Jackson campus is located just over 11 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. This is great news for surfers, who will want to head for swells at the appropriately named Surfside Beach. Fishing enthusiasts will also be spoilt for choice with the wealth of fishing jetties in the area. Half an hour northeast of the campus, meanwhile, is the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, where approximately 400 animal species can be spotted – from lurking alligators to flocks of snow geese. Out-of-town students may be able to afford that new pair of binoculars, or a shiny surfboard, too, thanks to annual 2020-21 tuition and fees for non-Texans totaling only $2,677.
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Tuition information was updated June 2020.