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Colleges That Offer the Best—and Worst—Bang for the Buck


As college acceptances have rolled in, high school seniors and their parents are now wrestling with the tough decision of which school to attend. While they likely won’t rely only on future earning power as their sole criteria, the expectation certainly is that college is going to be worth the cost of tuition. It’s a given you’ll eventually earn back your tuition — and then some. But that’s just not the case, according to a new analysis from careers site PayScale. Some colleges are graduating students who barely recoup their outlay, or where ROI is negative after 20 years employment. In many cases, that means they will be saddled with heavy debt for decades; some Americans today are stuck paying off college loans into their retirement years , says the 2016 PayScale College ROI Report.

So which colleges offer the best – and worst – return on your (ROI) investment? To find the answer, Payscale drew on data from 962 schools (442 public, 505 private not-for-profit, 15 are private for-profit). (The large universities that don’t report on-campus living costs are excluded from the study.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, engineering schools make up six of the top 10 best ROI, with Caltech and MIT leading. Nationwide, average net ROI for engineering schools was $756,000 after 20 years working. By contrast, average net ROI for colleges of liberal arts, religion, art, music, and design was about $250,000 in the same period.

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Overall, public colleges and universities provide good ROI, thanks to their low tuition. (The average cost for tuition, room and board at U.S. public universities was $19,548 vs. $43,921 for private school, according to 2015-16 figures.) Ranking high were state universities in New York (SUNY- Maritime College), Colorado (the School of Mines), Georgia (Georgia of Tech), California (UC Berkeley), and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. But private schools can make for good value. Two that didn’t quite make the top 10 below but offer outstanding ROI: Brigham Young University (BYU) and Park University, which combine relatively low tuition, generous aid, and graduates’ earning power.

The report also documents the inherent advantage of family wealth. If your parents are high earners (in the top 25% of households), there was an 85% you stayed out of the bottom 25% by the 20-year mid-career point. Conversely, college graduates from low-income backgrounds (families in the bottom 25% of U.S. household income) had suppressed income: Less than one in five make it to the top 25% by mid-career.

Because of the high demand for software engineers, data scientists, even civil engineers, STEM continues to be a safe bet as a good investment because it will pay off. Still, it’s not for everyone.

If you or your child isn’t a budding scientist, pay attention to factors that can make for negative ROI, says Aubrey Bach, PayScale’s Head of Alumni Analytics, a data product that tells colleges how their alumni are faring: a lack of job placement programs, career counseling, internships. Learn about the demand in the marketplace for graduates with your intended degree.

Drawn to a lower-paying field? You (or your child) can get the best value for your tuition dollar by choosing a lower-cost public college with in-state tuition.

Each of the schools below was ranked at the bottom, or the top, overall, for ROI in the U.S.—giving you the worst, or the best, deal for your money. Rankings were based on the total cost for full-time study (including tuition, on-campus room, board, and fees). Data was collected Feb. 2013 to Feb. 2016 from respondents with bachelor’s degrees only (anyone with a higher degree was not included). Return is the additional expected future income stream a college graduate received, over a high school graduate (minus four years of lost income for the years spent studying). Median pay after 20 years includes cash only (not retirement and healthcare benefits, or stock options). The margin of error is plus or minus 5%, except for the elite schools (Ivy Leagues, Stanford, Caltech) where 20-year earning levels vary so widely, it is plus or minus 10%.

Worst Colleges for Your Money

  1. Shaw University, Raleigh, N.C. (Private) (tied)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$110,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$80,000

Total Cost: $111,000

Average grant/year: $8,600

University of Montevallo, Montevallo, Ala. (Public) (tied)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$110,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$89,000

Total Cost: $123,000

Average grant/year: $6,400

  1. Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, N.C. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$98,200

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$73,000

Total Cost: $98,200

Average grant/year: $7,300

  1. University of South Carolina – Aiken Campus, Aiken, S.C. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$75,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$47,000

Total Cost: $83,000 in-state, $119,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $7,100

  1. SUNY – College at Potsdam, Potsdam, N.Y. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$71,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$46,000

Total cost: $82,700 in-state, $120,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $6,300

  1. Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, N.C. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$52,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$18,000

Total cost: $49,000 in-state, $92,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $8,500

  1. Grambling State University, Grambling, La. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$51,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$28,000

Total cost: $88,900 in-state, $123,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $6,000

  1. Black Hills State University, Spearfish, S.Dak. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$32,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$17,000

Total cost: $80,600

Average grant/year: $3,800

  1. Goshen College, Goshen, Ind. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $29,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $43,100

Total cost: $159,000

Average grant/year: $18,000

  1. Francis University, Loretto, Penn. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$26,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $49,400

Total cost: $177,000

Average grant/year: $18,700

  1. University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Pembroke, N.C. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: -$25,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: -$850

Total cost: $105,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $6,100

Best Colleges for Your Money

  1. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $973,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $1,100,000

Total cost: $ 230,000

Average grant/year: $32,100

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $972,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $1,120,000

Total cost: $ 232,000

Average grant/year: $36,300

  1. Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif. (Private) (tied)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $945,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $1,060,000

Total cost: $ 249,000

Average grant/year: $29,800

SUNY – Maritime College, Bronx, N.Y. (Public) (tied)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $945,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $967,000

Total cost: $ 89,000 in-state; $126,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $5,400

  1. Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $1,010,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $967,000

Total cost: $240,000

Average grant/year: $39,300

  1. Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colo. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $846,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $881,000

Total cost: $ 118,000 in-state, $181,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $8,800

  1. Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $833,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $871,000

Total cost: $91,000 in-state, $168,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $9,700

  1. Princeton University, Princeton, N.J. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $ 820,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $ 966,000

Total cost: $224,000

Average grant/year: $36,500

  1. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburg, Penn. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $ 811,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $ 908,000

Total cost: $243,000

Average grant/year: $24,200

  1. University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif. (Public)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $ 873,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $ 866,000

Total cost: $ 133,000 in-state, $225,000 out-of-state

Average grant/year: $ 16,600

  1. Babson College, Babson Park, Mass. (Private)

20-year net ROI without financial aid: $ 928,000

20-year net ROI with financial aid: $

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