Updated on 05.21.15

20 Colleges Well Worth the Money

State schools and engineering programs offer the best return on your investment.

Here’s a sobering statistic: Over 20 years, you’d earn a better return investing your college fund in the stock market than actually using it to attend most colleges in the United States.

In fact, according to a just-released report from PayScale, the 20-year annualized return on investment (ROI) for both Apple (24.8%) and Microsoft (15.2%) shares beat the annualized ROI at all 815 schools included in its new study. Only 24% of schools included in the PayScale report have a 20-year annualized ROI higher than the S&P 500 over that time (7.8%).

How does PayScale calculate a college’s ROI? Take the total cost of attending — that’s the investment. Then measure the difference in salary between someone with a degree from that school and someone with only a high school diploma. That’s the return.

College graduates earn more than high school graduates on average, but, as the study shows, some degrees are worth more than others.

For example, an in-state, on-campus student at Georgia Tech pays about $87,000 for tuition, fees, books, and room and board over four years. But he or she will earn close to $800,000 more than someone with just a high-school diploma over the course of 20 years, even if the high-school graduate worked an extra four years while our Yellow Jacket was in college.

As an annualized gain, that comes out to an impressive 12.5% per year. And of course, most careers span closer to 30-40 years, so the returns don’t end there.

What was the average 20-year ROI for attending a school included in the study? An adequate 8.94%. But that’s not to say one should consider investing in the stock market in lieu of going to college.

“We absolutely believe college is a more consistent and reliable return on your investment than the stock market,” says PayScale’s Lydia Frank. “There happen to be some stocks that have performed really well over time and some that haven’t. But there are no sure bets in the stock market. The point is, all colleges are not created equal. And just going to college isn’t going to provide a great return on your investment if you don’t consider some of this additional information.”

PayScale’s sixth annual rankings detail the return on investment you can expect to get from various types of colleges and majors as well as specific schools.

Engineering schools continue to dominate the ROI rankings. The average 20-year net ROI for engineering schools is $677,500. Meanwhile, for-profit, liberal arts, religious, art, and music and design schools all have an average 20-year net ROI of less than $250,000.

The PayScale research also shows that state schools tend to be a better investment in many cases. They dominate the list when sorted by 20-year annualized ROI percentages, which PayScale says is indicative of their relative low cost when compared to private schools.

The best state school in the country when it comes to 20 year net ROI? Colorado School of Mines, with a net ROI of $831,000.

“It’s a school that specializes in engineering, and particularly petroleum engineering, which tends to be lucrative,” says Frank.

Some not-too-surprising findings: Math, computer science, engineering, and business majors tend to have a pretty lucrative future after graduation. The report shows graduates of such majors have the best chance of seeing a 20-year net ROI above $1 million.

“Not every person who majors in one of those fields or goes into one of those fields in terms of career, is going to have that kind of return,” cautions Frank. “But when we looked at the data, those were the areas where there was the possibility to crack that level of earnings. However, even in a career or major that tends to be lucrative, the school you graduated from impacts your earnings.”

The report also includes more amusing statistics like this one: The average 20-year net ROI for party schools (as defined by The Princeton Review) was slightly higher than the average for sober schools ($354,400 vs. $336,000).

What should one do with that sort of information? Well, that’s up to you.

The most important message of this report, Frank stressed, is to think carefully about which college you choose, which major you choose, and whether your investment is a logical one.

“I think ultimately, the key takeaway that we think will benefit students and parents, is this is an opportunity to start having this conversation,” says Frank. “Eighteen-year-olds are being asked to sign on the dotted line, and take on this debt without a lot of discussion about what they are likely to make after graduation. We don’t ask them to think about earning potential. We’re not saying you should make decisions based solely on ROI. But you can’t ignore the fact that college costs money and the average student is graduating with $30,000 in debt.”

One way to hedge against this astronomical debt is to consider online learning opportunities, which you can easily search through using the tool below:

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Sponsored schools

As for physical campuses, here’s a breakdown of the top-rankings schools for ROI, without taking into account financial aid. (All data courtesy of PayScale, except tuition rates from U.S. News & World Report.)

UC Berkeley Campus

No. 20: University of California, Berkeley – Berkeley, Calif.

2014-15 tuition and fees (in-state): $13,844
Total cost of attendance: $129,900
20-year net ROI: $703,100
Annualized ROI: 9.3%
% receiving grants: 60%
Average grant money received (1 year): $16,600
Average total loans (4 years): $23,360


Rice University

No. 19: Rice University – Houston

2014-15 tuition and fees: $40,566
Total cost of attendance: $204,600
20-year net ROI: $708,400
Annualized ROI: 7.9%
% receiving grants: 60%
Average grant money received (1 year): $33,800
Average total loans (4 years): $24,920


NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering

No. 18: NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering – New York

2014-15 tuition and fees: $46,170
Total cost of attendance: $219,100
20-year net ROI: $713,900
Annualized ROI: 7.7%
% receiving grants: 93%
Average grant money received (1 year): $22,200
Average total loans (4 years): $31,280


Georgia Tech football team ca. 2006

No. 17: Georgia Institute of Technology (Out-of-State) – Atlanta

2014-15 tuition and fees (out-of-state): $30,698
Total cost of attendance (out-of-state): $161,700
20-year net ROI: $721,300
Annualized ROI: 9.0%
% receiving grants: 67%
Average grant money received (1 year): $9,700
Average total loans (4 years): $30,600


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

No. 16: Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Worcester, Mass.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $42,778
Total cost of attendance: $220,900
20-year net ROI: $722,100
Annualized ROI: 7.7%
% receiving grants: 98%
Average grant money received (1 year): $18,700
Average total loans (4 years): $43,600


Brown University in the snow

No. 15: Brown University – Providence, R.I.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $47,434
Total cost of attendance: $229,100
20-year net ROI: $723,900
Annualized ROI: 7.6%
% receiving grants: 47%
Average grant money received (1 year): $35,800
Average total loans (4 years): $24,640


Missouri S&T

No. 14: Missouri University of Science and Technology (In-State) – Rolla, Mo.

2014-15 tuition and fees (in-state): $9,537
Total cost of attendance: $87,000
20-year net ROI: $726,000
Annualized ROI: 12.0%
% receiving grants: 94%
Average grant money received (1 year): $8,400
Average total loans (4 years): $26,400


Rose Hulman Institute of Technology

No. 13: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology – Terre Haute, Ind.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $41,283
Total cost of attendance: $217,900
20-year net ROI: $735,100
Annualized ROI: 7.8%
% receiving grants: 100%
Average grant money received (1 year): $18,800
Average total loans (4 years): $40,800


Kettering University

No. 12: Kettering University – Flint, Mich.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $35,600
Total cost of attendance: $190,100
20-year net ROI: $752,900
Annualized ROI: 8.5%
% receiving grants: 100%
Average grant money received (1 year): $17,400
Average total loans (4 years): $45,600


Virginia Military Institute via Facebook

No. 11: Virginia Military Institute (In-State) – Lexington, Va.

2014-15 tuition and fees (in-state): $15,518
Total cost of attendance: $95,700
20-year net ROI: $767,300
Annualized ROI: 11.8%
% receiving grants: 66%
Average grant money received (1 year): $11,600
Average total loans (4 years): $31,800


Colorado School of Mines via Facebook

No. 10: Colorado School of Mines (Out-of-State) – Golden, Co.

2014-15 tuition and fees (out-of-state): $33,598
Total cost of attendance: $172,000
20-year net ROI: $771,000
Annualized ROI: 9.1%
% receiving grants: 72%
Average grant money received (1 year): $8,800
Average total loans (4 years): $30,480


Princeton University, via Facebook

No. 9: Princeton University – Princeton, N.J.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $41,820
Total cost of attendance: $217,300
20-year net ROI: $795,700
Annualized ROI: 8.2%
% receiving grants: 60%
Average grant money received (1 year): $34,200
Average total loans (4 years): $17,040



Tech Tower at Georgia Tech

No. 8: Georgia Institute of Technology (In-State) – Atlanta

2014-15 tuition and fees (in-state): $11,394
Total cost of attendance: $86,700
20-year net ROI: $796,300
Annualized ROI: 12.5%
% receiving grants: 67%
Average grant money received (1 year): $9,700
Average total loans (4 years): $30,600


MIT campus, photo by David Wiley: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidwiley/

No. 7: Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Cambridge, Mass.

8092014-15 tuition and fees: $45,016
Total cost of attendance: $224,500
20-year net ROI: $798,500
Annualized ROI: 8.0%
% receiving grants: 56%
Average grant money received (1 year): $36,300
Average total loans (4 years): $33,680


Stanford University, via Facebook

No. 6: Stanford University – Stanford, Calif.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $44,757
Total cost of attendance: $233,300
20-year net ROI: $809,700
Annualized ROI: 7.9%
% receiving grants: 53%
Average grant money received (1 year): $39,300
Average total loans (4 years): $29,880


Babson College via Facebook

No. 5: Babson College – Wellesley, Mass.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $45,120
Total cost of attendance: $230,200
20-year net ROI: $812,800
Annualized ROI: 8.0%
% receiving grants: 45%
Average grant money received (1 year): $33,400
Average total loans (4 years): $31,880


Colorado School of Mines students, via Facebook

No. 4: Colorado School of Mines (In-State) – Golden, Colo.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $16,918
Total cost of attendance: $112,000
20-year net ROI: $831,000
Annualized ROI: 11.4%
% receiving grants: 72%
Average grant money received (1 year): $8,800
Average total loans (4 years): $30,480


Stevens Institute of Technology via Facebook

No. 3: Stevens Institute of Technology – Hoboken, N.J.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $44,490
Total cost of attendance: $232,000
20-year net ROI: $841,000
Annualized ROI: 8.1%
% receiving grants: 97%
Average grant money received (1 year): $26,800
Average total loans (4 years): $44,000


Cal Tech

No. 2: California Institute of Technology – Pasadena, Calif.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $43,362
Total cost of attendance: $221,600
20-year net ROI: $901,400
Annualized ROI: 8.6%
% receiving grants: 54%
Average grant money received (1 year): $32,100
Average total loans (4 years): $22,160


Harvey Mudd college via Facebook

No. 1: Harvey Mudd College – Claremont, Calif.

2014-15 tuition and fees: $48,594
Total cost of attendance: $237,700
20-year net ROI: $985,300
Annualized ROI: 8.7%
% receiving grants: 71%
Average grant money received (1 year): $29,800
Average total loans (4 years): $21,920

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