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Bang for Your Buck: Guide to the Highest ROI Colleges

By Chris Couch – Mar 20, 2014 at 10:34AM

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Students shell out big money for a postsecondary education because they expect it to pay off. Which colleges offer the best bang for the buck? Find out here.

The average bachelor's degree holder earns $1 million more over their lifetime than those who stop at the high school diploma level, reports Georgetown University, but averages tell little about how students at individual institutions fare. With half of recent grads either unemployed or underemployed, it's crucial to understand exactly how much bang for your buck to expect. According to Payscale's 2013 College Education ROI Rankings, these institutions are worth the money. Calculated based on the average cost of attendance with financial aid for full-time undergrads, and projections based on the median salaries of recent graduates, here are the colleges with the highest return on investment.


Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA
Cost of Attendance: $63,860
30-Year Return on Investment (including financial aid): $2,217,000

This private school has a high sticker price, but meets 100 percent of demonstrated student need and grants generous aid packages averaging $32,000 annually. The school also maintains strong connections with employers through its clinic program, wherein upperclassmen work with industrial partners to solve real-world problems, and may even get named on a patent in the process.

Paul Celuch, owner of College Assistance Plus, an educational consulting firm in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., says that when evaluating a school's ROI, families should interview the head of the department their student is majoring in and ask them to "give me some anecdotal examples of people who have graduated in previous years and how did you help them get employment," says Celuch. "That's holding their feet to the fire."

California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, CA
Cost: $58,755
30-Year ROI: $2,103,000

Caltech grads are welcomed into the job market with median starting salaries of $81,000 to $90,000. Caltech also gets students through, with 79 percent of full-time undergrads turning the tassel in four years, according to US News and World Report. That's nearly double the national average.

When assessing whether a college is affordable, Joseph Hurley, author of "The Best Way to Save for College," recommends researching completion rates as well as chatting with alumni in your field about how they fared post-college. "That's a resource that very few students actually take advantage of," he says.

Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO
Cost: $30,603 in-state, $46,533 out of state
30-Year ROI: $1,607,000

One of the few public colleges to make the list, this mathematics, science and engineering school focuses its academics on lucrative majors and bolsters its ROI with comparatively low prices. With financial aid factored in, the average student only pays around $22,000 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

How much you'll need to borrow is only half of the equation -- how much you'll earn after school is the other part of evaluating ROI. To ensure that you can afford loan payments, Paul Celuch recommends investigating earning potential in your field before enrolling.


Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta
Cost: $23,384 in-state, $42,688 out of state
30-Year ROI: $1,440,000

A former U.S. President, Nobel Prize winners, state senators and CEOs have all called Georgia Tech home. The research-focused institution is best known for its engineering, physical science and computer science programs, but also has impressively strong business and political science departments.

Georgia Tech offers substantial financial aid, but an added bonus is that this school (and all the other public colleges in Georgia) get a helping hand from the HOPE Scholarship, an award of up to $6,554 per year given to nearly all residents with a 3.0 GPA.

Duke University, Durham, NC
Cost: $61,404
30-Year ROI: $1,277,000

Don't let the sticker price on this school fool you. For middle-income applicants, Duke is probably cheaper than the public college around the corner. NCES reports that for families earning $75,000 or less, the average net price of Duke is under $8,200 per year.

A shocking sticker price but reasonable net price is not uncommon, says Kelly Tanabe, co-author of "The Ultimate Guide to America's Best Colleges 2014."

"Public colleges start out with a lower sticker price but often have less financial aid to give, whereas private colleges often start with a higher sticker price but have more financial aid to give," she says.

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
Cost: $62,152
30-Year ROI: $1,193,000

"Johns Hopkins is world-renowned for its pre-med program and it's strong in engineering, but it also has strength in English and international relations," says Kelly Tanabe.

One of the most well-rounded institutions, Johns Hopkins' long list of superstar alum has just as many (if not more) Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, Grammy Award-winning musicians and heavily accoladed filmmakers as it does Nobel Prize-winning scientists, NATO ambassadors and U.S. surgeon generals. Yes, the sticker price here is astronomical, but the net price clocks in at under $14,000 annually for families with incomes less than $75,000 per year, reports the NCES. Expect premium research facilities, a mind-blowing faculty, and opportunities to explore both arts and sciences.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Cost: $58,732
30-Year ROI: $1,739,000

In addition to offering top-notch academics, "MIT tends to be a little bit more generous with financial aid and they'll work with families for financial purposes," says Ronald Ramsdell, founder of College Aid Consulting Services in Minneapolis.

If schools don't meet your financial need, you may be able to appeal for more says Ramsdell. Not meeting your need by $4,000 or more and unexpected circumstances that aren't assessed on the federal needs formula, such as high medical expenses, debt or sudden job loss, can be grounds for a reassessment of your awards, but you've got to let financial aid advisors know by writing a letter of appeal.

Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Brooklyn, NY
Cost: $52,064
30-Year ROI: $1,728,000

Engineering dominates Payscale's annual highest-paying majors survey, occupying six of the top 10 slots, so it's no surprise that engineering-heavy schools like NYU-Poly have equally high ROIs. NYU-Poly is also particularly generous on financial aid, as the NCES reports that 98 percent of full-time beginning undergrads receive scholarship or grant aid from the college on top of any federal or state aid they may be eligible for.

One way to increase your aid package is to seek schools that give sizable awards. College Navigator publishes information on average award packages and net prices broken down by income levels.

State University New York Maritime College, Throggs Neck, NY
Cost: $19,317 in-region, $28,767 out of region for civilians
30-Year ROI: $1,611,000

Having a nearly perfect job placement rate keeps students on the up and up after graduation, but SUNY Maritime's vast Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) options keep costs in check while they're on campus. The five ROTC programs reduce college costs to nearly nothing, and qualified New York residents with high test scores may be eligible for a full tuition scholarship through the school's Cadet Appointment Program.

SUNY Maritime isn't the only school offering robust service awards. All five U.S. service academies offer free tuition in exchange for post-college military service, and you can find ROTC programs on campuses across the country.


Rice University, Houston
Cost: $54,291
30-Year ROI: $1,186,000

With 14 astronauts, several Nobel Prize-winning scientists and seven members of the National Academy of Sciences counted among its alumni and faculty, Rice not only has significant bragging fodder for its math and science programs, it also has sweet alumni connections.

While Rice offers a wide array of majors, science and technology-centric schools with more limited offerings won't be a good fit for all students. Choose a school that doesn't fit your needs and you could wind up transferring and racking up more debt.

When assessing if a college is a good fit, Kelly Tanabe says, "It's important that you look first at what your interests are and how they match up with the college." Job shadowing experiences, internships and sitting in on college classes can help you decide on a career path and pick a college that excels in that area before enrolling.

Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
Cost: $21,581 in-state, $38,701 out of state
30-Year ROI: $1,099,000

Students here enjoy a relatively low cost, vast internship and co-op opportunities, and a huge roster of majors that provide academic choices.

Too much choice can sometimes make it tougher to keep college costs down. The average student changes their major between one and five times before graduation, reports University of California Berkeley's career center, and each time can potentially add extra classes. To ensure an on-time graduation, Paul Celuch recommends doing some career exploration before enrolling.

"You can't say, 'I watch NCIS so I think I want to be a forensic scientist.' That doesn't cut it," he says. "You need to understand what a forensic scientist does on a day-to-day basis."

University of Texas, Austin, TX
Cost: $25,704-27,096 in-state, $38,826-52,754 out of state
30-Year ROI: $971,100

UT Austin has a low sticker price compared to its private school counterparts. However, it keeps costs low by offering aid programs ranging from tuition rebates for students who don't take classes beyond their degree requirements, to waivers that eliminate out-of-state fees.

Students oftentimes miss financial aid because they don't believe they're eligible. A 2009 study by showed that about 2.3 million qualified students missed free Pell Grants because they didn't apply. A visit to your school's aid office could be the most lucrative decision you've ever made.


Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, IN
Cost: $57,168
30-Year ROI: $1,426,000

High post-graduate salaries vastly increase Rose-Hulman's ROI. With a net price of nearly $35,000, the engineering and biochemistry-heavy school is still a financial stretch for many families. If you know you'll need aid, target schools outside of your region, says Joseph Hurley. Colleges sometimes pay handsomely to increase the geographic diversity of their student body.

University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN
Cost: $57,117
30-Year ROI: $1,367,000

Committed to helping all accepted students attend, Notre Dame excels when it comes to financial aid. Among students who demonstrate need, the average scholarship package totaled $30,000 for 2013 freshmen. The school also has stellar graduation and employment rates, as 96 percent of students graduate on time, and a walloping 97 percent find work, hit grad school, or volunteer within six months of leaving campus.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City, SD
Cost: $16,170 in-state, $19,000 out of state
30-Year ROI: $1,248,000

Work experience sets this school apart, as 79 percent of students participate in an internship, co-op or research projects, with the average participant raking in $17.01 per hour. With career fairs, a vast alumni network, a student research symposium, and a center designed to partner students with industry professionals to work on real-world problems, campus is rife with opportunities to meet your future bosses. And it pays off, with students finding work soon after graduation and the average annual starting salary hovering around $62,400.

The original article: Bang for Your Buck: Guide to the Highest ROI Colleges appeared on

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