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How long does it take for a college degree to pay off? For many, it's 5 years or less.

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One of the major questions facing families today is whether a college degree is worth the expense, given rising tuition and fees that can saddle graduates with tens of thousands in student loan debt. Today, a majority of Americans don't think the cost can be justified.

But a new analysis finds that most post-secondary degrees provide a payoff within less than five years after graduation for low- and moderate-income students, although that time frame can largely depend on the type of school and program that a student chooses. The analysis, from the HEA Group and the educational nonprofit College Futures Foundation, focuses on graduates in California, the state with the largest number of enrolled college students.

The study examined families earning $75,000 or less given that these students may be more likely to skip higher education due to fears that pursuing a post-secondary degree may not pay off, even though a college degree could help them get an economic foothold. For this group of students, almost 4 of 5 California colleges and other higher education institutions provide a return on investment within five years, the research found.

"The No. 1 deterrent for a student not to pursue a college degree is affordability — they simply think they can't afford the cost of a higher education," HEA Group founder Michael Itzkowitz told CBS MoneyWatch. 

But the study found that many low- and middle-income students are getting "an affordable education that allows for enough of an earnings premium that they can pay down their college education very quickly," he added.

The schools with the best return on investment for low- and middle-income students include many of California's state colleges, which tend to be lower-priced than nonprofit private universities, he noted. Itzkowitz said he believes the findings have applicability across the U.S. because students across the nation likewise have access to state colleges and universities that offer lower-cost degree programs compared with private institutions.

The findings echo recent a recent analysis of 1,500 colleges by Bloomberg News, which found that Ivy League universities like Yale and Harvard provide the best return on investment due to high salaries earned by their grads. But students who don't gain acceptance to one the Ivies are often better off attending state colleges, rather than high-priced private institutions, given that public institutions' lower cost of attendance result in a better return on investment.

Even though many students incur debt when pursuing a college degree, graduates are typically rewarded in the workplace with higher earnings, a benefit that accrues across their career. Despite Americans' increasing skepticism about the value of college, the typical college grad now earns about $60,000 annually, compared with $36,000 for people with only high school degrees, according to data from the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

Over a lifetime, that college wage premium can translate into a huge financial advantage. For instance, baby boomers with bachelor's degrees have median retirement savings of almost $600,000, but those with only a high school diploma have only about $75,000 socked away, a recent study found.

Colleges offering the biggest payoff

To examine a school's return on investment, the analysis looked at data from the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard to examine the earnings premium for 731,000 low- and moderate income graduates in California. 

The analysis then looked at the net cost that students pay to complete a degree, which is tuition and other fees minus scholarships and grants, times the number of years required to earn a degree. Comparing the earnings premium that college grads receive versus their net cost of getting their degree indicates how long it takes to get a return on investment.

For instance, the study found the net cost of earning a bachelor's degree at California State University, San Bernardino, stands at about $5,373. But graduates of that university earn about $28,000 more per year than people with only a high school degree. As a result, CSU San Bernardino grads are able to earn a return on their investment after just a few months of graduating — giving it the second-best return on investment among all California schools.

The pricier Stanford University offers the best return on investment, with low- and moderate-income students basically able to recoup their costs as soon as they graduate. That's due partly to the wage premium given to Stanford grads, who typically earn about $74,000 more annually than people with only high school degrees. 

But Stanford, like other top-rated colleges, accepts a smaller share of low- and moderate-income students compared with state schools, the study found. 

"There are many state schools that are often the best option for students to consider," Itzkowitz said. "They oftentimes include in-state tuition, which is much less expensive than out-of-state tuition, and they can offer generous scholarships and provide strong economic opportunities."

Schools with red flags

The analysis also found some red flags, with about 20% of higher education programs providing no ROI. Basically, graduates will never earn enough to offset the cost of attendance, because their earnings are likely to remain lower than those of high school graduates.

These tend to be for-profit schools that offer certificate programs in industries such as cosmetology, the study found. 

Because of these pitfalls, students should research schools and colleges to learn about typical graduates' economic outcomes before committing to a program, Itzkowitz noted. 

"It's critical that students are more discerning than ever, because it's one of the most important decision you'll ever make," he noted. 

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