Report: 30% of colleges fail to provide strong ROI after 10 years

Though students make up gains later in life, more than half at those institutions earn less than high school graduates in the short term.

More than 1,200 institutions of higher education are struggling to provide a good return on investment in the short term for their students compared with high school graduates, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the workforce.

That number, which totals 30% of all colleges and universities across sectors—public and private nonprofits, for-profits and community colleges—is due to a number of factors, including low completion rates, low earnings tied to gender, and race and choice of institutions, the CEW notes. But it is also tied into the high cost of attending and the amount of debt incurred, which now totals more than $1.6 trillion nationally.

“College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential, program of study, and institution,” CEW Director Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale said. “It’s important to inform people about the risk of taking out loans but not graduating, which could leave them without the increased earnings that would help them repay those loans.”

The Georgetown CEW’s new ROI tool shows exactly where an institution’s net value ranks at several benchmarks—after 10 years of enrolling, 15 years, 20 years, 30 years and 40 years. A third of institutions are showing a less-than-desirable ROI in the short term, while a little more than 60% serve students well. However, those outcomes change over time. By the time those students hit the 40-year mark, they are almost always seeing gains.

The best of the best at the 15-year mark are private nonprofits in two of the hottest fields—healthcare and technology. The top five include the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in New York, MIT, Caltech and the Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in California. Two for-profits made the top 10, including St. Paul’s School of Nursing in Queens (No. 6) and two-year certificate program The Creative Circus in Georgia (No. 10). The others are Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (No. 7), Harvey Mudd College (No. 8) and Stanford University (No. 9).

More from UB: Why college leaders say ROI outcomes need to be more closely watched

All of the bottom 50 institutions at the 10-year mark are all privates too, split between nonprofits and for-profits. The bottom 10 include several that focus on the arts or music, including the prestigious Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. At that interval, students have a net negative worth of $100,000. However, many of them make up those earnings over time with huge gains by the 40-year mark at both institutions and others. For example, students who enroll at Manhattan School of Music have a negative net worth of $155,000 at 10 years but are at +$295,000 after 40 years. As the CEW notes, fields and institutions are important. After 40 years, students at Caltech are at +$2.5 million.

So how do public colleges fare in terms of ROI with students? They are the best overall at returns at the 10-year mark and hold up pretty well long-term. They actually beat private nonprofits, $1.03 million to $984,000 in lifetime value. A bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland not only gives students a positive return of $150,000 after 10 years but $1.2 million after 40 years.

The 10-year vs. 40-year interval really shows the disparities between degree types. For example, those who earn certificates or associate degrees in the short term typically see better value because they have less debt. However, later in life, those with bachelor’s degrees earn far more on average because of gains in income. “We need a comprehensive career counseling system to help students and their families use this information to make decisions about college,” said Martin Van Der Werf, CEW director of editorial and education policy.

One of the most intriguing stats is that 10 for-profit institutions crack the Top 50 in terms of return on investments after 50 years, including St. Paul’s School of Nursing in New York, West Coast University in California and DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington. That outpaces publics, which have just six on the list: Georgia Tech, the Colorado School of Mines, three maritime academies, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

TOP 100 COLLEGES WITH BEST LONG-TERM VALUE (after 40 years; does not include for-profits; numbers rounded up)

  1. University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis ($2.68 million)
  2. Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ($2.60 million)
  3. Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences ($2.50 million)
  4. California Institute of Technology ($2.49 million)
  5. MIT ($2.49 million)
  6. Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science ($2.391 million)
  7. Harvey Mudd College ($2.37 million)
  8. Bentley University ($2.24 million)
  9. Babson University ($2.24 million)
  10. University of Pennsylvania ($2.2 million)
  11. Stanford University ($2.2 million)
  12. Princeton University ($2.13 million)
  13. Carnegie Mellon University ($2.12 million)
  14. University of the Sciences ($2.08 million)
  15. Stevens Institute of Technology ($2.05 million)
  16. Georgetown University ($2.03 million)
  17. Lehigh University ($2.02 million)
  18. Cal State-Maritime Academy ($1.98 million)
  19. Duke University ($1.98 million)
  20. Massachusetts Maritime Academy ($1.97 million)
  21. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute ($1.95 million)
  22. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology ($1.95 million)
  23. Georgia Tech ($1.95 million)
  24. Columbia University ($1.95 million)
  25. Kettering University ($1.94 million)
  26. Santa Clara University ($1.94 million)
  27. Boston College ($1.92 million)
  28. Colorado School of Mines ($1.92 million)
  29. Yale University ($1.92 million)
  30. Dartmouth College ($1.9 million)
  31. Claremont McKenna College ($1.89 million)
  32. Cornell University ($1.88 million)
  33. U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ($1.88 million)
  34. University of Notre Dame ($1.86 million)
  35. Villanova University ($1.86 million)
  36. Harvard University ($1.86 million)
  37. Bryant University ($1.86 million)
  38. Worcester Polytechnic Institute ($1.86 million)
  39. SUNY Maritime College ($1.83 million)
  40. Washington and Lee University (1.83 million)
  41. Bucknell University ($1.8 million)
  42. Lafayette College ($1.77 million)
  43. Johns Hopkins University ($1.76 million)
  44. Fairfield University ($1.75 million)
  45. University of California-Berkeley ($1.75 million)
  46. Missouri University of Science and Technology ($1.75 million)
  47. University of Southern California ($1.75 million)
  48. Manhattan College ($1.75 million)
  49. Washington University in St. Louis ($1.74 million)
  50. Milwaukee School of Engineering ($1.74 million)
  51. College of the Holy Cross ($1.73 million)
  52. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo ($1.73 million)
  53. Heritage Valley Kennedy School of Nursing ($1.73 million)
  54. Vanderbilt University ($1.72 million)
  55. New Jersey Institute of Technology ($1.72 million)
  56. Veeb County School of Nursing ($1.71 million)
  57. Clarkson University ($1.71 million)
  58. Northwestern University ($1.7 million)
  59. Rice University ($1.7 million)
  60. Emory University ($1.7 million)
  61. Northeastern University ($1.67 million)
  62. Embry-Riddle University-Worldwide ($1.67 million)
  63. George Washington University ($1.66 million)
  64. Illinois Institute of Technology ($1.65 million)
  65. Brown University ($1.65 million)
  66. University of Virginia (1.65 million)
  67. University of Michigan ($1.65 million)
  68. Southern Westchester-BOCES Nursing ($1.65 million)
  69. University of Chicago ($1.61 million)
  70. Case Western Reserve University ($1.61 million)
  71. Colgate University ($1.6 million)
  72. University of San Francisco ($1.6 million)
  73. Embry Riddle University-Daytona ($1.6 million)
  74. UCLA ($1.6 million)
  75. JFK Muhlenberg, Snyder Schools ($1.6 million)
  76. Michigan Technological University ($1.6 million)
  77. University of Connecticut-Waterbury ($1.59 million)
  78. Embry Riddle University-Prescott ($1.59 million)
  79. University of Connecticut-Avery Point ($1.59 million)
  80. University of Connecticut-Stamford ($1.58 million)
  81. Maine Maritime Academy ($1.57 million)
  82. Drexel University ($1.57 million)
  83. Eastern Suffolk BOCES ($1.57 million)
  84. Boston University ($1.56 million)
  85. Hamilton College ($1.56 million)
  86. Virginia Polytechnic Institute ($1.56
  87. Western Pennsylvania Hospital School of Nursing ($1.56
  88. Reading Hospital School of Health Sciences ($1.5
  89. University of California-Irvine ($1.55 million)
  90. University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign ($1.55 million)
  91. Amherst College ($1.55 million)
  92. Wake Forest University ($1.55 million)
  93. Virginia Military Institute ($1.54 million)
  94. Wentworth Institute of Technology ($1.54 million)
  95. University of the Pacific ($1.54 million)
  96. University of Maryland-College Park ($1.54 million)
  97. University of San Diego ($1.54 million)
  98. Loyola University-Maryland ($1.54 million)
  99. Merrimack College ($1.54 million)
  100. Emory University ($1.54 million)


  1. Paul’s School of Nursing-Staten Island ($2.1 million)
  2. West Coast University-Miami ($2.09 million)
  3. West Coast University-Dallas ($2.09 million)
  4. Paul’s School of Nursing-Queens ($2.06 million)
  5. West Coast University-Ontario ($2.03 million)
  6. West Coast University-Los Angeles ($2.03 million)
  7. West Coast University-Orange County ($2.03 million)
  8. The Creative Circus ($2.02 million)
  9. Neumont College of Computer Science ($1.89 million)
  10. DigiPen Institute of Technology ($1.82 million)


  1. Southern Westchester BOCES Nursing ($429,000)
  2. Paul’s School of Nursing-Queens ($424,000)
  3. Heritage Valley Kennedy School of Nursing ($417,000)
  4. Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science ($410,000)
  5. Brownson Technical School ($407,000)
  6. MIT ($406,000)
  7. University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis ($402,000)
  8. Veeb Nassau County School of Practical Nursing ($402,000)
  9. Eastern Center for Arts and Technology ($394,000)
  10. Ocean Corporation ($391,000)
  11. California Institute of Technology ($388,000)
  12. Marian Health Careers Center-Los Angeles ($387,000)
  13. Hobart Institute of Welding ($385,000)
  14. Chester County Immediate Unit ($383,000)
  15. Marian Health Careers Center-Van Nuys ($382,000)
  16. The Creative Circus ($378,000)
  17. Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Services ($376,000)
  18. P C Age-Jersey City ($373,000)
  19. Applied Technology Services (MO) ($370,000)
  20. Stanford University ($367,000)


  1. Princeton University ($333,000)
  2. S. Merchant Marine Academy ($321,000)
  3. Fashion Institute of Technology ($302,000)*
  4. Georgia Tech ($295,000)
  5. Foothill College (CA) ($278,000)*
  6. University of Pennsylvania ($277,000)
  7. Vermont Technological College ($271,000)*
  8. Skyline College (CA) ($268,000)*
  9. California State University-Maritime Academy ($263,000)
  10. (tie) Bellevue College and Cascadia College ($260,000)*

*predominantly offers associate’s degrees

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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