A recent Pew survey found:

A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.

Is a college education a good Return On Investment (ROI) for most Americans?

  • 7
    Wow, so many confounding factors for a definitive answer to address: presumably you must compare college costs against opportunity costs for money making, but you must factor out that people who don't go to college are likely to be less scholastically successful (how much so?) and less financially supported (how much so?). Do you include changes to prospects for marriage? children? How much you might enjoy the lifestyle? How much extrinsic motivation it provides for skill acquisition? etc. etc. This looks like a hard one to answer.
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 6, 2012 at 7:24
  • IIRC, I've seen some comparison between the money above baseline you get with B.Sc. vs money above baseline you get with extra 4 years of experience.
    – vartec
    Sep 6, 2012 at 10:59
  • 2
    The biggest factor is what you get a degree in. A BA in history will be less likely to pay for itself than a BS in mechanical engineering, for instance. Sep 6, 2012 at 15:26
  • @WilliamGrobman, excellent analysis. The best answer would look at what variables have the biggest effect on ROI. School attended, major, sex, age, etc.
    – user1873
    Sep 6, 2012 at 15:33
  • 1
    @dsollen: What then becomes tricky is if we assume that sort of people who make (financially) poor tertiary education decisions would make better financial decisions if they didn't choose to further their formal education.
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 6, 2012 at 17:38

3 Answers 3


Depends on the college.

Payscale provides college ROI ranking.

  • best provide 30-year net ROI of $1,467,000.
  • while worst have negative ROI.
  • median 30-year net ROI is $65,000.

There are 1248 colleges on the list, of which 352 have negative ROI.

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As for doubt "how can negative ROI exceed the cost of the college"?

Return from Attending College: The main financial benefit of attending college is the gain in income received by a college graduate over a high school graduate. However, by choosing to attend college, one is giving up four to six years of income one could have received if one went straight to work after high school. Therefore, we calculate the gain in pay over a high school graduate (earnings differential) as the difference between the 30-year median pay for a 2011 bachelor's graduate and weighted 34-36 year 75th percentile pay for a high school graduate.

  • 14
    I would think that ROI is more dependent upon major than school.
    – Pete B.
    Jan 18, 2017 at 15:41
  • 9
    I second Pete's comment. Notice that all of the top 4 schools in the 'best' list have some form of engineering as their most popular major and/or alumni job title. Meanwhile, the bottom ones all have much less lucrative most popular majors and alumni jobs titles (e.g. business administration, interior designer, illustration, etc.)
    – reirab
    Jan 31, 2017 at 23:04
  • 1
    Additionally, the data that creates those charts is inflated by people who got their degrees decades ago when a much smaller percentage of the population got degrees. We have undergone significant degree inflation in the past few decades, so much that now 70% of high school students go onto college (source: BLS) With so many students attending college, the benefits of having a college degree are less.
    – tnk479
    Jan 18, 2019 at 18:04
  • @tnk479 and quite a bunch of the "regular" highest paying jobs (as in IT) don't need a degree at all, so the value of the diploma is ever harder to measure.
    – T. Sar
    Nov 5, 2019 at 19:25

I don't think this can be answered so easily. Vartec's answer looks at earning potential across the board.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/04/education-and-marriage/ Shows that Collage has an effect on marriage longevity.

Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics estimate that 78% of college-educated women who married for the first time between 2006 and 2010 could expect their marriages to last at least 20 years. But among women who have a high school education or less, the share is only 40%.

Though some of their findings may be consider coincidence instead of causality.

Other factors include Job satisfaction (https://trends.collegeboard.org/education-pays/figures-tables/job-satisfaction-education-level-2008) That shows that Collage graduates are slightly more likely to have a little more "satisfaction" then a few other categories. But, again this may be more subjective then anything. It's also important to note that difference between "High school graduate" and "Bachelors" is minimal.

There is also lifespan (http://abc7.com/archive/8664380/ has a nice summary)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Wednesday their annual report on health in the United States where statistics showed that, on average, 25-year-olds who received a bachelor's degree had a life expectancy almost nine years longer than those who did not have a high school diploma.

But here again the difference is between Not graduating high school and graduating collage. If you look at the linked report you can infer more interesting things.

In many cases it comes down to what does the individual think. In my personal experience there are a few jobs for which a degree of one form or another is a requirement, for example Doctors. There are many jobs that only exist to further academics, for example Scientists. Then their are jobs that probably work better with formal education, For example Lawyers. Finally there are jobs that would work more effectively with other types of post secondary education, for Example Software Developer.

While a great many jobs need some kind of education beyond the general "stuff" thought at the high school level, I don't think you can actually quantify, on a global scale, the best way to teach those skills, and because you can't quantify that, the value of experience, and the ability of the person to negotiate their "worth", I don't think you can get a good base line on rather or not "Collage is worth it". Everyone has to make their own personal decisions. You can't put a price on happiness, and no matter what a graph tells you, if you feel you need 4 more years of education to be "complete", then skipping it will always be a sore spot.

  • I tried to keep it from my answer, but my opinion is that around 80% of the time collage just isn't worth it.
    – coteyr
    Feb 3, 2017 at 18:03
  • Most of the elements you stated are likely not due to causation. Individuals with higher education tend to have had a better home-life as children, tend to have more income to cover expenses, tend to be more intelligent etc etc yadda yadda. For instance those who graduate college are far more likely to have lived in a stable two person home, which in turn would likely lead to being better equipped to have a stable marriage. The only fact I could see have a casuational link is happiness, if people are better able to get jobs they enjoy from their degrees.
    – dsollen
    Jun 22, 2017 at 20:58
  • That was my point @dsollen. A lot of the "benefits" don't seem like they come from college alone.
    – coteyr
    Jan 16, 2019 at 17:26
  • This is interesting, but I think it would be improved with a comment about the risks of interpreting correlation with causation.
    – User65535
    Sep 14, 2022 at 10:31

Yes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median usual weekly earnings increase with increasing level of education, while the unemployment rate declines.

enter image description here

As the graph shows, unemployment rate for people with high school diploma is 1.8 times that of people with bachelor's degree. The median weekly earnings are double for bachelor degree holders compared to people with high school diploma.

This has been the trend consistently for many years.

enter image description here

An interactive version of the chart given above consistently shows unemployment rate for high school graduates roughly double that of college grads.

Is it worth it? That's more difficult to say. It depends on the type of school attended, the degree attained, and a number of other factors. We can do a quick back of the envelope calculation to get a feel of where the numbers stand:

Assuming the median college grand makes $500 more per week than a high school grad, that's ~ $25,000 per year.

According to this website

half of all full-time undergraduate students at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges attend institutions that charge tuition and fees of $11,814 or less

As per this chart, the average public 4 year college tuition for an in-state student is $9400 per year, for a total of ~ $40,000. Assuming you earn roughly $25,000 more per year, you get your investment back in under 2 years. Even for private college graduates who pay on average $32,400 per year, or roughly $130,000 total, it's still under 6 years to get your investment back.

I think it's pretty clear that, for the median college grad, the cost of college is well worth it considering that even someone who payed their way through a private college, without any financial help (grants, scholarships), can recoup their investment in mere 6 years and reap the benefits for another 35+ years.

  • 1
    -1 Basing the verdict on the average person in college is not what's needed. A scientific mindset would be looking for the person one or two standard deviations from the mean and seeing if it's a "safe" investment/decision for them. Jan 15, 2019 at 17:30
  • @elliotsvensson It's not based solely on the average person. Half of full-time undergrads report tuition under $12,000. That's under $50,000 for 4 year education. So that's the cost for majority of the undergrad students already. Even taking into account the much higher cost of private universities, it's pretty clear that the cost will be recouped pretty quickly.
    – ventsyv
    Jan 15, 2019 at 17:42
  • But I don't think you're taking into account some of the false statements Juniors and Seniors in high school hear from "experts": edmit.me/blog/2017/12/06/… "...an education at a private college is within your financial reach." avid.org/cms/lib/CA02000374/Centricity/Domain/35/… "In the long run, the financial value of having a college degree outweighs the cost." Jan 15, 2019 at 18:37
  • These statements are true for some college admits, but by no means all admits! Otherwise, where do these anecdotes come from when kids default on their student loans? Jan 15, 2019 at 18:38
  • @elliotsvensson The question asks if college education is a good investment for MOST, not ALL, Americans. Also, "college education" does suggest that a degree was earned. The horror stories you do hear are not majority of the students. It's mostly people who attended predatory for-profit institutons, or attended for a while, racked up debt and then dropped out.
    – ventsyv
    Jan 15, 2019 at 18:46

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