Affordable Colleges With Highest Return on Investment

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Earning a college degree requires a significant investment of both time and money. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013-2014 school year was $30,094 at private colleges, $8,893 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,203 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

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The reason for making an investment in a college education is, of course, the expected return. According to a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study, bachelor’s degree holders can expect median lifetime earnings approaching $2.3 million, nearly twice as much as workers with only a high school diploma. Clearly, the investment in a college education will pay off in the long run. How much it pays off, however, depends on how smart the investment was in the first place. Finding affordable schools with quality education programs that translate to real career potential is the critical first step.

Top 10 Best Online Colleges with High Returns

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  • METHODOLOGY

    Best Online Colleges with High Returns

    To determine colleges with the best return on investment, ACO data analysts evaluated online bachelor’s and master’s degrees using the following statistical sources, eligibility criteria and ranking factors:Data Sources:

    Eligibility Criteria:

    • Each college must be accredited
    • Each college must be a not-for-profit institution
    • Each college must be located in a state (US territories and Washington DC were excluded)
    • Each college must have at least one online program

    Ranking Factors:

    • Affordability
    • Quality
    • Flexibility
    • Program
    • 20-year earnings

    Several individual data points were objectively evaluated to calculate a score or amount for each ranking factor listed above. For affordability, the most impactful data points were tuition1 and grants; for quality, graduation and acceptance rates; for flexibility, part-time enrollment options; and for program, degrees granted in that specific program area. Each score was then weighted, with affordability and 20-year earnings being the most impactful factors for return on investment.

    1 Both in-state and out-of-state tuition rates were used in our methodology; however, our rankings tool currently only displays in-state rates.Notes:

    • A dash in our Rankings Tool indicates IPEDS data was not available.
    • Tuition displayed in in-state and per year unless stated otherwise.


Calculating the ROI of your degree is an important — if oft overlooked — step of the school selection process. At its most basic level, a school’s ROI can be determined by While it can be difficult to determine, a school’s ROI can be determined by weighing the cost of a school against the conferred degree’s earning power. Using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and running it through our handcrafted methodology, ACO has come up with a list of schools that offer students the highest return on their tuition dollars.

Best Online Colleges with High Returns 2018-2019

  1. Harvard University
    Location

    Cambridge, MA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Established in 1636, Harvard University is a private Ivy League research institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard comes in at the top of the list with a 20-year ROI of $1,031,816. With over 900 courses, 20 degree fields and 40 certificates, it's online extension school offers a variety of highly customizable bachelor's and master's degrees for distance learners. In total, Harvard has about 6,700 undergraduate and 15,250 graduate students, all taught by about 2,400 faculty members. Online concentrations in the humanities, sciences and social sciences are available along with subdiscipline concentrations in all three. As a graduate of Harvard, you have both online and offline alumni services and benefits, including the school's exclusive Crimson Careers database. From career and networking tools to electronic library services to the Harvard Club, graduates have access to valuable career-building resources. Along with competitive tuition costs for an Ivy League school, 55% of students receive grants. Additionally, at 98%, Harvard has one of highest graduation rates.

  2. Stanford University
    Location

    Stanford, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    With a 20-year net ROI of $992,564, Stanford University takes second place. The school has 2,219 faculty members and serves more than 7,000 undergraduate and 9,300 graduate students. It's well known for entrepreneurship, leadership, research and innovation, but the school also thrives in the arts. As a leader in computer science and technology, Stanford offers several online degrees, graduate certificates and professional programs through its School of Engineering to prepare students for a range of in-demand careers. Post graduation, Stanford continues to support new grads and alumni in achieving their goals through its Alumni Association and extensive Alumni Career Services, which include professional education, career coaching, access to job boards and networking opportunities. In 2017, undergraduate students went on to find employment in a range of industries, from higher education to IT and business to fine arts. Examples of top employers of Stanford graduates include Accenture, Facebook, Apple, Google and McKinsey & Company. While Stanford is a highly selective school, it has a graduation rate of 96%, and about 48% of students receive grants.

  3. Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
    Location

    Boston, MA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences is a private institution located in Boston's Longwood Medical and Academic Area. With over 100 programs offered across 3 campuses and online, MCPHS produces a diverse set of health care leaders in areas such as dental hygiene, public health, radiography, nursing, pharmacy and psychology. Ranking in third place, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy has a net ROI of $742,728 over 20 years. Well above average, 97% of graduates of this program can pay down the principal of their federal loans within 3 years of graduation. Massachusetts College of Pharmacy offers individualized career services through meetings that can be one-on-one, in-person, by phone or via email. More than 27,000 alumni around the globe are connected through the Career Center Blackboard resource. Here, professionals can network with others, search for jobs and have access to online resources and career guides.

  4. Maine Maritime Academy
    Location

    Castine, ME

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Specializing in engineering, nautical training, management, science and transportation studies, Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) is a public college with approximately 900 students. Located in Castine, Maine, and founded in 1941, it is 1 of 6 maritime training colleges in the United States. The school features undergraduate and graduate programs available both on campus and online. Graduates of this school go on to secure positions as nautical professionals, government workers and high-level employees in Fortune 500 companies. Maine Maritime Academy boasts a strong internship program that often leads to full-time employment upon graduation. Newly graduated students have access to career development and internship planning services, and the school also has a 95% job placement rate within 6 months of graduation. Degrees and training at MMA are well worth the investment. Ranking in 4th place, MMA has a 20-year net ROI of $648,644. On average, 39% of students receive grant money to attend MMA, and well above average, 67% of its students make it through the program to graduation.

  5. Columbia University in the City of New York
    Location

    New York City, NY

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Coming in 5th place is Columbia University in New York. Serving over 27,900 students, Columbia has a 20-year net ROI of $653,444. This private Ivy League school in Upper Manhattan was founded in 1754 and is known, in part, for its undergraduate and graduate programs in public health. Graduates of Columbia's public health program go on to secure prominent positions in the field at top research universities, progressive labs and antiviral centers as well as high-level positions in city departments of health and hygiene. Approximately 88% of Columbia's public health school graduates find employment in a health care field within 6 months of their graduation. Columbia's graduation rate is a high 95%, with around 52% of those students receiving grant money throughout their education. Each school within Columbia University has separate and specialized career services to provide students and alumni with the essential tools to manage their professional development. The alumni association helps graduates connect through global networking events and online tools. Alumni also have access to Columbia's Career Coaches Network. Columbia alumni can also work directly with career advisors to help build their resumes, find additional or continuing education materials, take online seminars and participate in skill-building workshops.

  6. Bellevue University
    Location

    Bellevue, NE

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Bellevue University is a not-for-profit institution located in Bellevue, Nebraska. With more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, this private university has prioritized adult education and educational outreach since its establishment in 1966. Bellevue students can choose from over 80 degrees and certificates that can result in a significant return on their investment. Ranked 6th, Bellevue has a 20-year net ROI of $104,404. In addition to having affordable in-state tuition costs, more than half of the student body receive grants while in attendance. Bellevue meets the demands of working adults by offering flexible schedules, career-relevant degree programs and over 75 fully online degree programs. Therefore, it is no surprise that many Bellevue students are 25-34 years old. The Bellevue Foundation and Alumni Office offer programs and services to keep graduates connected in their professional lives post graduation. Beyond helpful online job boards and library resources, alumni have access to career preparation and job application services, specialized career coaches and a military veteran services center.

  7. Missouri University of Science and Technology
    Location

    Rolla, MO

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Located in Rolla, the Missouri University of Science and Technology was founded in 1870. This public land and space grant institution has a student body of 8,884 and is known for its engineering, business, sciences and mathematics programs. The school offers 16 graduate degrees and certificates online as well as professional and continuing education programs. This school may be particularly attractive for distance learners interested in pursuing degrees less commonly offered as an online program, such as master's degrees in aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, geotechnics and mining engineering. Missouri S&T also strives to help soon-to-be graduates and alumni prepare for and locate employment. Individual advising, workshops, job fairs and practice interviews are open to all students and alumni. Ranked in 7th place, Missouri S&T offers a 20-year net ROI of $189,648. On top of competitive tuition, 82% of students receive grant funding. Graduates of these programs move on to successful careers at major corporations, such as Anheuser-Busch, Caterpillar, Chevron, General Motors and Sprint Nextel.

  8. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
    Location

    Lubbock, TX

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Lubbock's Texas Tech University Health Science Center (TTUHSC) is a multi-campus institution that serves more than 100 counties in West Texas. Established in 1969, TTUHSC has a study body of 4,500 and offers a wide variety of graduate and undergraduate degrees online. Consisting of three major schools- medicine, nursing and pharmacy- students can earn degrees in a number of health professions that will position them for a healthy return on their investment. Ranked in 8th place, TTUHSC offers a 20-year net ROI of $590,360. Texas Tech University Health Science Center's career center offers students and alumni job preparation services, information sessions with hospital recruiters, access to a national job search database and connections to advantageous internships and residences in their specialized area of study. Graduates of this program move to work at top facilities, such as the Cleveland Clinic, United States Air Force Nurse Corps and health care employers around Texas.

  9. Georgia Institute of Technology
    Location

    Atlanta, GA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Georgia Institute of Technology is a public research university located in Atlanta. The school has 31 academic departments located within 6 colleges and is well known for its engineering, computer science, business administration, design and liberal arts degree programs. Georgia Tech has 1,740 teachers on campus, serving a student body of 29,400 students. Students can earn online graduate degrees, such as a master's degree in analytics, computer science or aerospace engineering, that will increase their earning potential and put them on a path toward a long, successful career. Ranked in 8th place on our list, Georgia Tech has a 20-year net ROI of $285,280. Its professional development services for alumni will help you develop new skills and refine those qualities that make you a unique, contributing member of the workforce. Alumni have access to Georgia Tech's JacketNet Jobs database, annual job fairs with over 100 employers, workshops, webinars and online networking resources reserved exclusively for Georgia Tech graduates.

  10. Union Institute and University
    Location

    Cincinnati, OH

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Cincinnati's Union Institute and University is a private, not-for-profit research institution that specializes in distance education. At Union, you can pursue any of its 19 graduate and undergraduate programs entirely online. The school offers some traditional online majors, such as criminal justice and education, as well as less common, standout options, like the Ph.D. in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Studies and the master's degree in creativity studies. Whichever major you choose, Union has proven to be a strong investment. Ranked 10th on our list, Union's 10-year ROI is $302,208. Its alumni and career planning services will help you prepare for and locate a job in your chosen field or help you apply for further education. Boasting a strong education program, many Union graduates have gone on to become presidents of universities all around the globe, positively impacting the face of higher education. Additionally, Union has produced a notable number of law enforcement officers, with over 2,250 active duty members holding a criminal justice management degree from Union nationwide.

Calculating Return on Investment (ROI)

With student loan debt reaching a record high of $1.2 trillion, according to NBC News, students and families are understandably concerned about the cost of a college education. Skyrocketing tuition rates have also lead many to question whether a degree is even worth it. Research has shown, however, that a degree does pay off, as long as it leads to a well-paying career and not just a job at the local coffee shop post graduation.

The harsh reality is that some colleges and degrees pay for themselves, while others don’t, and in today’s job market that’s something all students need to seriously think about before enrolling in any college and degree program.

What is ROI?

ROI, or return on investment, is a term that many have probably heard before. It’s a performance or value metric that can be applied to all sorts of purchases to determine if something is worth one’s money. If the benefits—or return—outweigh the investment, that’s a good sign that the purchase will be worth it. In terms of higher education, ROI refers to the cost of attending college (investment) versus the graduate’s future earnings (return). Because college students will be spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on education, it’s important to determine a college’s ROI before making any commitments. ROI, however, can be very subjective, and there is no one-size-fits-all calculation. An important factor to one student may not be as important to another. For example, student A may decide she needs personalized attention – typically characteristic of small private colleges – in order to do well, while student B can thrive in either a small or large environment.

Although ROI can be very personal, below are important factors that all students should consider:

The Investment: Total Cost of College

To calculate a college’s ROI, the first step is to determine the total cost of college. While tuition and fees are amounts that most students look at, some tend to overlook other important expenses that can affect total cost. Examples of other expenses to consider include:

  • Additional fees, such as technology, assessment, laboratory and health insurance fees
  • Room and board
  • Textbooks and supplies
  • Personal living expenses

In addition to these expenses and fees, also consider the financial aid received, such as grants and scholarships. The financial aid consideration also applies to any online schools you may have in mind. In recent years, the federal government has pushed for increased transparency when it comes to college prices, so many schools now provide online calculators to help students and families estimate the total net costs. For a detailed rundown of how financial aid works at online colleges, see our in-depth guide.

Calculating Potential Debt

The potential debt that students accrue can greatly affect ROI. For example, if one’s student loan debt at graduation is more than one’s annual starting salary, that will be a problem. Ideally, a graduate should earn enough to meet all agreed repayment terms and conditions that came with the loan. This is when scholarships and grants will be beneficial. The more free money you can get, the less you’ll have to borrow and eventually pay back.

The Return: Expected Future Income

How much a graduate will earn is key to calculate college ROI, as well as making smart decisions about student loans. Even if you’re not sure of the amount, an educated guess will still be helpful as it’ll be difficult to determine if you’ll be able to earn back the money you invested in your degree without an idea of future income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics posts median wages for several industries and occupations. Sites such as salary.com are also useful for researching potential wages.

On a related note, one’s major or field can greatly influence future salary. It’s no surprise that an engineering degree will lead to a lucrative career, whereas a liberal arts degree will be much more varied, with some occupations even leading to little or no return at all. Therefore, when considering colleges, be sure to also think about your field of study and eventual career. If you’re passion is in a field that doesn’t pay well, it may be wise to consider a lower-cost college to maximize ROI.

According to salary.com, below are five majors that are a wise investment:

Other “Returns”

For many students, the primary concern is what they’ll earn after graduating. Although definitely important, some students may also consider other subjective, qualitative returns such as personal development and enrichment, life experience, passion, and socialization. These may not translate directly into financial benefits, but considering the fact that you’ll be committing a year, at the very least, of your life to being a student, they may help to keep you motivated and happy throughout the journey and can also positively affect you long after earning your cap and gown.

How Long Will it Take to Graduate?

Just because you’re pursuing a four-year degree, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll actually finish in four years. In fact, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, in 2012, 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduate students completed their degrees in six years. That’s two more years of tuition, fees, and student expenses that most likely weren’t factored in at the beginning.

Time to graduation is particularly important for adult learners to consider. Because many adult students work part- or full-time while in school, it may take them longer than expected to complete a degree program. This extra time can also result in missed income opportunities. For example, if you’re currently working full-time in marketing, but decide to go back to school for two years to earn an MBA, not only are you paying for an expensive degree, but you’re most likely losing out on income by going to part-time employment or giving up your job entirely. One way to bypass this is to attend an affordable online college, which offers more flexibility so you can work towards your degree and still earn that full-time paycheck.

Additional Resources for Students

There are a number of free online tools and websites that students and families can use to estimate various college costs, including ROI. Below is a list of resources to help you make the most of your college investment:

College Reality Check

College Reality Check

Produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this website provides information on graduation rates, net price, potential earnings, and how long it will take for students to pay off loans so that students and families have all the facts and information they need to make smart decisions about higher education.

The College Board

The College Board

The College Board offers several tools and calculators as well as other information on paying for college to help students and families better prepare for the financial commitment of higher education.

Fidelity

Fidelity

Fidelity has compiled helpful information on various 529 savings plans as well as tools to estimate expected contributions and college costs.

LearnVest Grad School Calculator

LearnVest – Grad School Calculator

For those interested in going back to school to earn a master’s degree, LearnVest has created a tool to help prospective students determine whether grad school is actually worth it.

U.S. News & World Report Net Price Calculators

U.S. News & World Report – Net Price Calculators

Most colleges and universities now have online net price calculators available on their websites, but sometimes they can still be hard to find. U.S. News has compiled a list of net price calculators for 300 top National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges.

College Affordability and Transparency Center

College Affordability and Transparency Center

In an effort to make college costs more transparent, the U.S. Department of Education launched the College Affordability and Transparency Center. Here, prospective students can find various information on colleges, including scorecards, net price calculators, and more.

Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)

Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)

FINRA’s overall mission is to protect the public from fraud and bad practices and to promote fair financial markets. The organization has put together a whole section on smart saving for college, including a college savings calculator to figure out the annual amount you should be investing in order to have enough money to pay for all college costs.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

CFPB offers all kinds of information on paying for college, financial aid, and repaying student debt.

Federal Student Aid

Federal Student Aid

Increasing college ROI often requires lots of careful budgeting. The DOE’s Federal Student Aid Office offers the following financial tips.

Lumina Foundation College Costs, Prices and the Great Recession

Lumina Foundation – College Costs, Prices and the Great Recession

The organization recently released a paper on college costs, prices and the Great Recession. Read the report to get a better understanding of the big picture.

50 Affordable Colleges with the Highest ROI

Top 10 Affordable Colleges with the Highest ROI

Finding an affordable college to attend just got a little bit easier. At Affordable Colleges Online we’re dedicated to helping you find the most affordable colleges in the fields you desire. We know how important a college degree is in today’s job market so we’ve analyzed the data and come up with this list of the most affordable colleges with the biggest return on investment. Check out the results and visit the university websites to find out which college is right for you. To find out how these colleges made our top-50 list, be sure to read our.

Most Affordable Large Public Colleges

Top 10 Most Affordable Large Public Colleges

Attending a public college is a great way to get a world-class education at a lower cost than through a private school, and larger schools mean more opportunity for academic exploration. The schools below educate thousands of students by offering robust programs ranging from physics to business administration and fine art, and are found all across the United States. See which large public colleges make the grade in 2015.

Most Affordable Small Private Colleges

Small colleges offer big rewards.

  • Size: 1,000 – 2,000 students
  • Private
  • Tuition: less than $15,000
  • Non-profit
  • 4 year school

READ MORE

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