With high school seniors and their families now deciding where to enroll for college next fall, they might want to take a gander at research showing the best -- and worst -- values for a degree.
The shocker in a survey by PayScale, a research firm that focuses on compensation, is that there are schools where students would have been better off not attending. Why? The 20-year net return on their college investment amounts to a financial loss, even when financial aid is included. Taking the time to get and spend money on a degree, in short, means you might actually find yourself in a financial hole.
The survey may add to parents' doubts about the value of a college degree, especially given that rising tuition costs have far outpaced the pace of inflation and the tough job market for some majors (think liberal arts). Those trends have saddled graduates with a combined $1 trillion in debt.
The worst off? Arts, humanities and education majors at more than a dozen institutions -- including respected schools such as Ohio State University and Indiana University -- where the 20-year net return falls lower than -$100,000.
"With student loan debt spiraling out of control, it's more important than ever for prospective college students to be armed with information that will not only help them decide where and what to study but how much debt they can afford based on their likely career prospects," Lydia Frank, the editorial director of PayScale, wrote in a report about the findings.
The college offering the worst overall 20-year ROI is Shaw University, a private liberal arts school in Raleigh, N.C. A bachelor's degree from Shaw will set you back almost $81,000, which is less than many other colleges. But the 20-year ROI is a stunningly low -$121,000, according to PayScale.
Shaw University said it found PayScale's methodology "seriously flawed." In an emailed statement, the university noted, "Their survey does not include the many Shaw alumni who earn substantial income as business owners or our graduates who later earned advanced degrees that could help increase their earning potential. Incredibly, PayScale makes no mention of their survey's sample size where respondents self-reported their income."
Another North Carolina college, Fayetteville State University, registered the second-worst return on a diploma, with graduates earning a 20-year ROI of -$95,700, PayScale notes.
To be sure, there are some caveats to keep in mind. PayScale is basing its estimates on self-reported income, which isn't always accurate. The study also doesn't consider the socioeconomic demographics for the schools or, for instance, how a college degree might change the projected 20-year earnings for student who comes from a low-income family. Without that degree, is it possible that student's 20-year earnings would have been even lower?
On the positive side, the schools with the strongest ROI were a mix of Ivy League names and the not-so-familiar, with Harvey Mudd College taking the No. 1 spot. Its students can expect a 20-year net ROI of almost $1.1 million. Harvey Mudd, while not a household name, focuses on so-called STEM topics, or science, technology engineering and mathematics.
That's a common theme among the colleges that offer the biggest bang for the buck. MIT, known for alumni including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke, was No. 2 on PayScale's list, with a 20-year ROI of $973,700. Caltech -- the workplace setting for CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" -- is in third place, with a 20-year ROI of $968,500.