Is ROI The Best Measure of Your College Education?

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—It's that time of year again: with graduation season winding down, the debate over the value of a college education is again gaining momentum. In his recent book, Is College Worth It? (Thomas Nelson, 2013), former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett is the latest to argue that for many, an investment in a college education may not offer the sort of ROI they'd anticipated. In fact, the book goes on to list several schools with a net negative ROI -- where the investment leaves you worse off than a high school graduate even after 30 plus years of career earnings.

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High School Diplomas Vs. College Degrees

Using data culled largely from's annual College Education Value Rankings, the book notes over 200 institutions of higher learning whose negative ROI suggests students may have been better off with a high school diploma, alone. In fact, Bennett's list of schools worth attending numbers only 150 – out of a possible 3,500 institutions.

Those are startling figures, especially considering the growing numbers of students seeking to improve their employment and lifetime earning prospects through higher education. The study only focuses on the relative value of bachelor's degrees, but some data suggests the picture may be even bleaker for those continuing on to graduate studies. In fields such as the humanities, for example, Master's degrees and Ph.D.s are yielding lower returns; meanwhile, the recession has lowered the value of all but the most elite M.B.A. and law degree programs.

The Best and Worst Values

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Elite private universities, such as Harvard, M.I.T., and Stanford are perennial ROI favorites; their strength of academics, reputation and networking opportunities produces consistently strong earnings returns for students. So, too, do engineering and science-heavy schools, such as Harvey Mudd and Cooper Union (the latter has historically been tuition-free, making the ROI calculation strongly positive).