Best Return on Investment (ROI) Colleges

By ACO Staff

Published on October 19, 2021

Best Return on Investment (ROI) Colleges

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Best Online Colleges with High Returns


Harvard University View School Profile Cambridge, MA $43280

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.

Stanford University View School Profile Stanford, CA $47331

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.

Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences View School Profile Boston, MA $30600

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.

Maine Maritime Academy View School Profile Castine, ME $10050

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.

Columbia University in the City of New York View School Profile New York City, NY $47442

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.

Bellevue University View School Profile Bellevue, NE $6840

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.

Missouri University of Science and Technology View School Profile Rolla, MO $8286

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.

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center View School Profile Lubbock, TX $5890

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.

Georgia Institute of Technology View School Profile Atlanta, GA $9812

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.

Union Institute and University View School Profile Cincinnati, OH $12240

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.

University of the Sciences in Philadelphia View School Profile Philadelphia, PA $36962

The University of the Sciences, founded in 1821, is located in Philadelphia and was the first college of pharmacy in North America. USciences comes in 11th place, with a 20-year net ROI of $484,016. With multiple online degree programs, distance learners can obtain training in biology and health informatics as well as various degrees in the pharmaceutical or health care business. At USciences, 96% of graduates are employed or accepted for further education within 6 months of graduation. This school also has a graduation rate 10-15 points higher than the national average. Additionally, more than 94% of USciences students who apply to medical school are accepted. As an added financial feature, undergraduate students may participate in USciences tuition reset program, wherein no student will pay over $25,000 per year in tuition until after they complete their degree. USciences career services for alumni and graduating students include one-on-one counseling, job search assistance, workshops on networking and interviewing skills, as well as personal careers services and assistance for alumni 11 years or more beyond graduation.

Upstate Medical University View School Profile Syracuse, NY $6470

Upstate Medical University, located in Syracuse, New York, is a SUNY health sciences institution and is the second oldest medical school in the state. Ranking at 12th place, Upstate has a 20-year net ROI of $461,068. With a student population of 1,500, Upstate offers graduate degree programs within the Colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Health Professions and Graduate Studies. Distance learners may take classes in a hybrid format for some majors, including degrees in information management and technology and nursing practice. Graduates of this university move on to successful careers with employers like Syracuse University, V.A. Medical Center, Verizon, Carrier Corp., Time Warner and St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center. In many cases, more than 95% of graduates from the medical school secure employment within 6 months of graduating. Career services are available for students and alumni of each college, including career development workshops and guest lecturers to make sure students not only enter the job market confidently but also effectively advance their careers after securing a position.

Illinois Institute of Technology View School Profile Chicago, IL $42989

Illinois Institute of Technology is a private research institute located in Chicago. The school has 659 academic staff members and serves 7,300 students. It ranks 13th on our list, with a 20-year ROI of $215,828. Although this is selective school, Illinois Tech has a 100% graduation rate, and 67% of its students receive grants. The school offers graduate and undergraduate degrees, 19 of which are available partially or fully online, in fields such as engineering, science, architecture and design. Upon graduation, 89% of undergraduates and 98% of graduate students secure jobs or continue their education to obtain an advanced degree. Illinois Tech offers their current students and alumni a variety of career services, including workshops and events, career fairs, experiential learning opportunities, networking tools with alumni around the globe and one-on-one counseling. Additionally, with the help of the Career Services Office, many undergraduate students at Illinois Tech obtain part- or full-time internships that count for academic credit, offer some monetary compensation and strengthen students' resumes for the competitive job market upon graduation.

Babson College View School Profile Wellesley, MA $48288

Established in 1919, Babson College is a private business school located in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Babson comes in at 14th on the list, with an ROI of $547,820. With a low admittance rate of 24%, this highly selective school boasts a graduation rate of 90%. Among the students enrolled, 48% receive grant money. Babson is known for cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit among its students and offers nearly 60 entrepreneurship-related classes. With its main campus in Wellesley and classroom locations in Boston, San Francisco and Miami, Babson offers its students several degrees in a hybrid format. Career development services are available for both undergraduate and graduate students. Babson alumni who wish to pursue further education can apply for alumni scholarships and preferential tuition pricing. Additionally, alumni have access to in-person or online career counseling, job boards and several alumni networking organizations. Career advisors at Babson work tirelessly to secure the most relevant industry information and career insights for students' benefit.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio View School Profile San Antonio, TX $5388

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio specializes in health science education and research. It comes in 15th place on our list, with a 20-year net ROI of $475,248. Established in 1959, the school serves about 3,300 students with 1,674 academic staff members. Distance learners can obtain both bachelor's and master's degrees entirely online. Online bachelor's degrees at UT Health San Antonio typically consist of around 32 hours of coursework and can be completed in 1 to 3 years. One of UT Health San Antonio's primary functions is to fund medical research, for which it secures $185.3 million in annual research awards and sponsored program activity each year. The Office of Career Development provides students and alumni with innovative career and professional development, including workshops, networking opportunities and outreach programs. The Student Success Center also helps students and alumni prepare for and find employment by organizing career fairs that include potential employers from health care organizations.

The University of Texas Medical Branch View School Profile Galveston, TX $5948

With a 20-year net ROI of $405,048, the University of Texas Medical Branch takes 16th place. Located in Galveston and established in 1891, the university is home to the oldest medical school in the state. The school boasts a faculty of 1,000 and a student body of more than 2,500. The University of Texas Medical Branch includes 4 separate schools: the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Nursing and the School of Health Professions. Though the number and type of alumni and career services vary by school, all schools offer job boards, online and in-person networking opportunities and continuing education services. Other career development groups, such as the Committee for Career Development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, are active in each of the 4 schools. In these organizations, graduate students and postdoctoral students organize seminars and workshops to promote the success of their fellow students.

Johns Hopkins University View School Profile Baltimore, MD $50410

Johns Hopkins University offers one of the most diverse online degree programs on the web. Ranked 17th, JHU's 20-year net ROI is $411,876. With 32 online programs to choose from, distance learners can earn certificates, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in disparate fields, such as applied economics, biotechnology enterprise and entrepreneurship. This highly selective school offers grants to more than half of its students. Additionally, JHU has a high graduation rate of 94% and makes a special effort to take care of their alumni after graduation. Johns Hopkins University uses the Handshake career services platform and GoHopOnline to connect alumni job seekers and employers. Online alumni services include library access and specialized financial, travel and health services. One-on-one career help is also available for JHU alumni through each of the 9 schools as well as pre-professional advising for current students and alumni in health care and law. Career webinars are available through the Career Center and Alumni Relations Office. Webinar topics range from building a solid resume, to interviewing and networking, to specialized areas that feature JHU alumni speakers.

Oregon Health and Science University View School Profile Portland, OR $12996

In 18th place, with a 20-year net ROI of $820,524, Oregon Health and Science University is a research university focused on health education, the study and prevention of diseases and patient care. Established in 1887, OHSU is a public university located in Portland. The institution as a whole employs over 16,000 people, which includes all medical and research facilities. Comparatively, there is only a small number of faculty and students- 2,800 and 4,000 respectively. The university is broken down into 3 schools: the School of Medicine, the School of Nursing and the School of Dentistry. Distance learners can choose from 4 online degrees, including OHSU's popular RNBS completion nursing program. Most programs at OHSU call for in-person clinical courses, making those online degree offerings hybrid. Alumni and current students at OHSU have access to career services through their home departments and the Career and Professional Center. Through these programs, students receive training sessions and resources that help them develop leadership, writing, research and presentation skills. Career advisors will also help students develop an individual development plan that explores career possibilities and sets goals that best fit their desired career path.

Sentara College of Health Sciences View School Profile Chesapeake, VA $343

Located in Chesapeake, Virginia, Sentara College of Health Sciences ranks 19th, with a 20-year net ROI of $121,664. The school, which serves 500 students and employs 70 faculty members, offers students a variety of popular medical degrees, including the RN to BSN, Bachelor of Sciences in Nursing, Master of Science in Nursing, and the Clinical Nurse Leader MSN, all of which are available entirely online. Student achievement in all of Sentara's programs is notably high, with more than half of its majors reporting a job placement rate of 88% or higher. Students who graduated with degrees in invasive surgery and cardiac electrophysiology reported a 100% job placement in 2017. Sentara's alumni services boast an average job placement rate of 85%, although some specialty programs have 100% placement. Alumni take advantage of professional societies offered through the school, including the Nursing Honor Society and the Society of Invasive Cardiovascular Professionals.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology View School Profile Rapid City, SD $7340

Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology is located in Rapid City. Coming in 20th place, SD Mines has a 20-year ROI of $133,412. The school serves over 2,700 students with 172 faculty members. Overall, SD Mines has a job placement rate of 96%. Although only 56% of its students complete their degree programs, more than 67% of them receive grant funding while enrolled. At SD Mines, distance learners can choose from three entirely online or hybrid master's programs in construction engineering and management, engineering management and mining engineering and management. SD Mines' Career and Development Center provides students and alumni with resume and interview preparation, networking events and workshops. Alumni and students can also search for jobs, internships and co-op positions through the school's own online job search engine, Gold Mine. SD Mines' career services office also specializes in developing employment opportunities for its alumni around the state. Partnering the Dakota Roots website, SD Mines helps grow the state's workforce by connecting employers with students and alumni interested in working in or returning to South Dakota.

University of Maryland, Baltimore View School Profile Baltimore, MD $8496

The University of Maryland-Baltimore has a 20-year ROI of $629,264. Established in 1807, UMB has over 6,700 students and 2,840 faculty members. The school is nationally recognized for its programs in public health, law, dentistry, pharmacy, social work and human services. Distance learners can earn both the RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MS degrees entirely online. Master's degree students have even more options, with hybrid and fully online options available in fields such as cybersecurity, forensic medicine, pharmacometrics and nursing informatics. For alumni and current students, the Office of Research and Career Development offers workshops, classes and seminars for those pursuing research-intensive careers. Their services also include tutorials on grant writing and publishing and funding original research. While alumni resources differ between each of the 7 professional schools, most offer specialized online networking platforms, class reunions and receptions, and access to a job board.

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor View School Profile Ann Arbor, MI $14982

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is a "Big Ten" public research university established in 1817 and has more than 540,000 living alumni--one of the largest alumni networks on the planet. Ranked in 22nd place, UM has an ROI of $160,760. The university boasts a notably high graduation rate at 92%, with 42% of those students receiving grant support while enrolled. UM offers several online degrees for distance learners, including convenient degree completion programs for transfer students with previous college credit. UM-Ann Arbor, in conjunction with its other campuses in Flint, Dearborn and Detroit, offers dozens of 52-week online courses through its Michigan Online program. In addition, UM uses the Handshake platform to provide alumni and students with access to job boards, available internships, campus and alumni events, job fairs and continuing education information. Alumni and currents students may also use the University Career Alumni Network (UCAN) to connect with UM graduates around the world and to pair students with alumni mentors who provide one-on-one, career-related advice.

Carnegie Mellon University View School Profile Pittsburgh, PA $51196

Coming in 23rd place with a 20-year net ROI of $667,788, Carnegie Mellon University is a private research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CMU is known for its programs in computer science, information and technology management, engineering and its Tepper School of Business. This selective school boasts a 90% graduate rate. While enrolled, 50% of its students receive grant support. Distance learners can earn a Master of Business Administration in a hybrid format through the Tepper School that follows the same rigorous curriculum as the traditional on-campus degree. Distance learners can also take advantage of CMU's Access Weekends, where online students can convene in Pittsburgh, D.C., Philadelphia or Silicon Valley to attend live classes, take exams, give presentations and visit with potential employers. The Career and Professional Development Center offers a variety of services to help students and alumni prepare for and secure employment. The Development Center programs include college- and industry-specific counseling and advising, career fairs, workshops, interview and resume assistance, and access to online databases with available internships and part- and full-time professional positions.

University of California, Berkeley View School Profile Berkeley, CA $11220

Serving more than 29,000 undergraduate students and 11,000 graduate students, the University of California, Berkeley is a public research institution established in 1868. Taking 24th place, UC Berkeley has an ROI of $101,000. The graduation rate at this competitive school is 93%, with 53% of those students receiving grants. Aside from being known as the flagship institution for the University of California system and one of the top public universities in the U.S., UC Berkeley's extension program offers a plethora of fully online degrees and certificates. From common online degree programs in business and education to stand-out degrees in art and design and biotechnology, the extension program offers online instruction for virtually any degree seeker. Graduates of UC Berkeley become a part of the Cal Alumni Association, which provides professional and social networking opportunities through corporate and networking events, continuing education services and mentorship opportunities.

Vanderbilt University View School Profile Nashville, TN $44496

Ranked in 25th place, Vanderbilt University is a private research university with a 20-year net ROI of $302,744. Located in Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt has a graduation rate of 93%. Approximately 63% of its students receive grant funding throughout their program. Remote students can pursue online degrees in education, human development and counseling and even an MBA. Known for its education school, Vanderbilt's Peabody College offers distance learners graduate degrees with state-of-the-art instruction and unique course offerings. The alumni association provides lifelong opportunities for its graduates to engage and connect through a variety of services and events. The VUconnect platform helps graduates search Vanderbilt's city-based alumni chapters and network of 125,000 alumni worldwide to make social connections and find career advancement opportunities. Alumni also have access to online job boards, industry research data and expert advice from career coaches via phone, email or skype. Vanderbilt alumni may also participate in the travel program, which features educational trips to locations all over the world, often with Vanderbilt professors, for "beyond the classroom" learning experiences.

Golden Gate University View School Profile San Francisco, CA $15120
Bentley University View School Profile Waltham, MA $44210
Case Western Reserve University View School Profile Cleveland, OH $45592
Clarkson University View School Profile Potsdam, NY $45132
Worcester Polytechnic Institute View School Profile Worcester, MA $46364
Kettering University View School Profile Flint, MI $39790
Stevens Institute of Technology View School Profile Hoboken, NJ $47134
University of Nebraska Medical Center View School Profile Omaha, NE $8550
Northwestern University View School Profile Evanston, IL $50424
Medical University of South Carolina View School Profile Charleston, SC $15174
Augusta University View School Profile Augusta, GA $6382
Cornell University View School Profile Ithaca, NY $50712
Lehigh University View School Profile Bethlehem, PA $47920
University of San Francisco View School Profile San Francisco, CA $44040
Villanova University View School Profile Villanova, PA $48610
Washington University in St. Louis View School Profile Saint Louis, MO $48950
Northeastern University View School Profile Boston, MA $46720
New York University View School Profile New York City, NY $46590
Southern Methodist University View School Profile Dallas, TX $44694
Wake Forest University View School Profile Winston-Salem, NC $48746
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston View School Profile Houston, TX $6972
University of Southern California View School Profile Los Angeles, CA $51442
Thomas Jefferson University View School Profile Philadelphia, PA $33543
Loma Linda University View School Profile Loma Linda, CA $30240
Rush University View School Profile Chicago, IL $32142

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. 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:

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:

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 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 has compiled helpful information on various 529 savings plans as well as tools to estimate expected contributions and college costs. 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. 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. 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. 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. CFPB offers all kinds of information on paying for college, financial aid, and repaying student debt. Increasing college ROI often requires lots of careful budgeting. The DOE’s Federal Student Aid Office offers the following financial tips. 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.

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