Colleges are like buying real estate property, some will pay out more than others over time.

The average student loan borrower graduates more than $32,000 in the red, according to the Federal Reserve. So, it’s common to question whether college is worth the cost now.

Compensation research site PayScale compared its own data to research from the National Center for Education Statistics to find the best and worst return on investment from colleges. Its findings are based on the following five factors to judge whether the pay will be worth the debt in the long-run:

  • 20-year return on investment
  • Student loan debt after graduating
  • The time it takes to graduate
  • Likelihood of graduating
  • The cost of attending

For one thing, the top five colleges — the only ones with a return higher than a million dollars — are in the North (three of them are in New York alone). And while all but one of the colleges at the bottom of the barrel — when it comes to value — are in the South.

Click or swipe through to see what colleges will give you the most bang for the buck…

1. United States Merchant Marine Academy

The Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York is PayScale’s pick for best value overall. It has roughly only 1,000 students attending.

The top programs are engineering and the not-boring-sounding-at-all transportation and materials moving. The best things to do in Kings Point when you’re not studying? Travel website TripAdvisor recommends a museum: the American Merchant Marine Museum.

  • 20-year return: $1,094,000
  • Average loan amount: $20,000
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 76 percent
  • 4-year cost: $34,900

2. United States Military Academy

Second on this list is the Military Academy in West Point, New York — located about two hours by car from the Merchant Marines Academy. Unlike the former, the Military Academy has 5,000 people attending.

Top employers plucking up graduates are the U.S. Army, unsurprisingly, and online retailer Amazon, a little surprising. The West Point Museum is something to visit in between your classes but also the historically preserved Constitution Island.

  • 20-year return: $1,041,000
  • Average loan amount: $0
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 86 percent
  • 4-year cost: $0

3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The third best school in terms of value is the first private school on this list. Situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT has fewer than 5,000 undergraduates. Top programs are engineering, and computer and information science.

[Want to know which degrees pay most after graduation? Check out the 10 best college degrees to get a job.]

Things to do in Cambridge? Just pick your poison. You can go for a walk on the Freedom Trail, or visit Fenway Park for a Red Sox game.

  • 20-year return: $1,015,000
  • Average loan amount: $30,200
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 93 percent
  • 4-year cost: $249,000

4. United States Naval Academy

Back in the military-verse, the Naval Academy is the southernmost college so far on this list, and it’s in Annapolis, Maryland, with a little more than 4,500 students. Top destinations for graduates of the Naval Academy are Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, and Houston, Texas.

  • 20-year return: $1,004,000
  • Average loan amount: $0
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 86 percent
  • 4-year cost: $0

5. State University of New York Maritime College

For the third college in New York and the first public college on this list, we turn to Throggs Neck’s SUNY Maritime College. Graduates regularly find work as “captains, mates, or pilots of water vessels” – with an average salary of $125,000.

Interestingly, this is the first college on the list with a graduation rate lower than 85 percent (by a lot) and the only one from which it takes five years to graduate, as opposed to the usual four.

  • 20-year return: $1,003,000
  • Average loan amount: $29,600
  • Years to graduate: 5
  • Graduation rate: 57 percent
  • 4-year cost: $95,300

6. (5.) Talladega College

Now to the schools with the worst return on investment. We arrive at a southern destination in Talladega, Alabama. Top programs include business, management, marketing — and visual and performing arts.

  • 20-year return: -$156,900
  • Average loan amount: $23,500
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 43 percent
  • 4-year cost: $88,200

7. (4.) Lindsey Wilson College

A private school in the worst list drops us in Columbia, Kentucky. There is a student population of 2,348. Top programs include public administration and social service professions, along with business, management, marketing, and related support services.

  • 20-year return: -$160,800
  • Average loan amount: $21,000
  • Years to graduate: 5
  • Graduation rate: 34 percent
  • 4-year cost: $152,000

8. (3.) Maine College of Art

Here we are at the first college in the North’s Portland, Maine. While PayScale doesn’t offer diversity information about the 448 student population, the Department of Education tells us about its not so racial and ethnically diverse student body: 81 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 3 percent American Indian/Alaska Native, 2 percent Asian, and 2 percent black, to list a few.

The top program at the school is Visual and Performing Arts. Interestingly, the private nature of the school logically means it’s more expensive. But its $184,000-degree pricetag you’d think would be accompanied by a better return on investment.

  • 20-year return: -$163,600
  • Average loan amount: $39,900
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 57 percent
  • 4-year cost: $184,000

9. (2.) Miles College

Miles Colleges is a historically black school in Fairfield, Alabama. With a student population again leveling out below 2,000 students, this private school’s student population is predominately female (70 percent).

[Debt.com has previously reported that only 4 in 10 graduates feel prepared for their careers after graduating from college.]

Top programs include business, management, marketing, homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting.

  • 20-year return: -$164,600
  • Average loan amount: $26,000
  • Years to graduate: 4
  • Graduation rate: 17 percent
  • 4-year cost: $90,200

10. (1.) Mississippi Valley State University

After looking at the five best value colleges in the northern region of the country we find the worst value college is in the South: Itta Bena, Mississippi. There are fewer than 2,000 students in attendance. Top programs include education and homeland security, law enforcement, firefighting, and related protective services.

Since we’re in the worst segment of the list, a low return on investment is expected but a negative number is flat out alarming.

[No matter what degree you leave school with, don’t miss a payment on your student loans. That’s the No.1 way to ruin your credit, according to previous Debt.com reporting.]

  • 20-year return: -$174,800
  • Average loan amount: $28,200
  • Years to graduate: 5
  • Graduation rate: 31 percent
  • 4-year cost: $75,700
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Meet the Author

Gideon Grudo

Gideon Grudo

Writer for Debt.com

Grudo is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist based in Brooklyn, NY. Previously he was the digital editor of Air Force Magazine and the managing editor of South Florida Gay News.

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