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College return on investment

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The Best and Worst Colleges For Your Money

An Ivy League degree could be worth an extra $1 million over 20 years, but attending the wrong school could leave you deep in debt

By Brandon Ballenger

This map shows the 10 colleges with the best 20-year return on investment — and the 10 worst. Hover over the icons to see how much more (or less) you’ll earn by attending one of these schools, then click for more details. Explore, then see our conclusions below.

The data are newly released by PayScale, a salary comparison site — which means they originally come from actual alumni of these schools. (On average, 315 people per school submitted information in the past two years.) While PayScale listed public schools twice (in-state and out-of-state tuition rates), we only considered out-of-state rates. This pushed the Colorado School of Mines and Georgia Institute of Technology off our top 10, but prevented duplicates in the bottom 10.

Best ROIWorst ROI
Harvey Mudd College$1,104,500SUNY – College at Potsdam-$121,900
California Institute of Technology$1,029,700Shaw University-$117,900
Stanford University$966,900Savannah State University-$88,400
Stevens Institute of Technology$948,300Maryland Institute College of Art-$78,400
Babson College$946,500Fayetteville State University-$75,400
Massachusetts Institute of Technology$943,600Adams State College-$62,600
Princeton University$932,500Jackson State University-$62,100
Brown University$867,000The University of Tennessee at Martin-$21,300
Rice University$843,700Elizabeth City State University-$18,700
Kettering University$822,600University of South Carolina – Aiken-$5,100


One of the most important things to note is that the bottom 10 reflects the students who attended those schools at least as much as it reflects the quality of the education at them. Not everyone who attends college does it to boost their earnings, and many don’t go into the field they majored in. Then there’s a segment that takes out thousands in student loans with no clear plans for graduating or getting a job, with predictable results.

The schools at the top of the list all have graduation rates above 60 percent, with most above 90 percent. They also tend to graduate within 4 years. On the bottom, with one exception — Maryland Institute College of Art, at 73 percent — the odds of graduating are 50/50 or worse. They also tend to take 5 years or longer.

That said, this map shares some key similarities with our map of student loan debt. That one showed that the cheapest schools are not always the best financial decision.

You might notice all of our top 10 schools are private, and most of the bottom 10 are public. Not all private schools are expensive — the cheapest school in the top 100 is Brigham Young University (No. 67) at $67,300. At about half the median college cost of $121,900, that’s a bargain. But most public schools are relatively cheap, at least at in-state rates: Virginia Military Institute (No. 13) costs $95,700 and UC Berkeley (No. 24) costs $129,900.

Also interesting is that private school students don’t necessarily take on more student loan debt than public school students. The median amount borrowed for the Top 10 is $27,400; for the bottom 10, $25,420. Instead, private school students tend to receive much more in grants — the top 10 got around $30,000 a year and the bottom 10 mostly got between $6,000 and $8,000 per year. Public school students are obviously more reliant on Pell grants, which are awarded to people with financial need. But even at the top of our list, one in five students took advantage of Pell grants.

The moral of this map for people who want to keep college costs down: Don’t be afraid to shoot for the big leagues. But wherever you land, graduate as quickly as you can.

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