Will your college degree pay for itself in 20 years?

BY Simone Pathe  April 22, 2014 at 3:50 PM EST
The return on college tuition varies by the type and cost of the institution. Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff/Getty Images.

The return on college tuition varies by the type and cost of the institution. Photo by Leslie Kirchhoff/Moment Select via Getty Images.

High school seniors are running out of time to decide where they’ll be sending deposit checks to reserve their spots in the class of 2018. But as their parents well know, that first check, typically due May 1, is only one of many; there’ll be plenty of tuition checks to write in the years ahead.

College, and money that students and their families borrow to pay for it, is often thought of as an investment in students’ future careers and earnings potential. And when narrowly defined as such, it’s possible to quantify the return on that investment. (Although higher education’s value arguably exceeds any monetary return).

Using data from the research firm PayScale, The Economist developed an interactive chart to present the cost of different American colleges and universities (after financial aid) and the net return on investment (ROI) over 20 years, plus the annualized percent return.

“The return is defined as the amount that a graduate earns, minus what someone who did not attend college would earn, and minus the cost of attending college,” The Economist explains. “Thus, a wider bar is good.”

The net cost is the difference between the total cost of attendance minus the average amount of grant financial aid (money you don’t have to pay back).

As The Economist points out, the price of college has risen more than four times faster than inflation since 1978, with much of that cash flow directed to non-academic expenses like fancy dorms and athletic facilities. The proliferation of highly-paid administrators also eats up money. The ratio of college bureaucrats to faculty is now one-to-one.

So which colleges are worth the investment? A quick glance at the schools with the top 10 ROI over 20 years shows an unsurprising trend: graduates of technological institutes and business schools are making money. Going to an Ivy League school helps, but Harvard only comes in at number 10, while Yale falls below schools like the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and Georgia Tech.

PayScale uses their database to calculate the expected 20-year median earnings of graduates from 1994 to 2013. This calculation assumes that earnings 20 years in the future that are wage-inflation-adjusted to today’s dollar value will be the same as earnings in 1994. That assumption, PayScale admits, could underestimate the 20-year earnings potential of graduates of schools that are now geared more toward engineering, for example, or any school that has changed character in the last 20 years.

Many of the most selective private schools command a steep price tag. A “little Ivy” like Amherst College, for example, accepted 13 percent of its 8,468 applicants this year. The cost of attendance for four years (after financial aid) is $84,530. That’s nearly $35,000 more than the yearly median household income.

But the return, per year, on that investment is slightly less than 12 percent, for a net 20-year ROI of $649,900. Try finding real estate that will appreciate as much.

Lifetime earnings for graduates of schools like Amherst may be much higher than this data suggests, though. PayScale only counts the earnings of graduates whose highest degree is a bachelor’s. But as they acknowledge in their methodology, ignoring graduates with MDs, JDs and PhDs excludes a “significant fraction” of graduates from liberal arts or Ivy League schools. At Bates College, for example, 70 percent of graduates pursue higher degrees within 10 years. But it’s too difficult, PayScale explains, to distinguish how much of higher-degree holders’ earnings are attributable to their undergraduate versus graduate degrees, and the cost of graduate school isn’t as easily accessible.

The whole point of the data, however, is that not all big investments in undergraduate education pay off. Good luck repaying your loans if you went to the most expensive institution — the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Its 20-year ROI ($137,400) is less than the cost of attendance ($191,400).

At the lower end of the spectrum, some schools actually have negative returns. Savannah State University, for example, has a negative annual return of nearly 7 percent on an investment of $40,570.

In 2011, Paul Solman reported on liberal arts graduates’ struggles to get jobs: