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When It Comes to ROI, College Major Matters More than School Attended

College doesn't always pay off. It depends on the major students pursue and how long it takes for a student to achieve her or his degree. Even attending an Ivy League school won't guarantee a high return on investment.

Those are some of the findings in a new report from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. FREOPP is an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization that researches the impact of public policies and proposed reforms on those with incomes below the U.S. median.

According to, "Is College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis," while some degrees are worth millions of dollars, others "have no net financial value."

The research project examined the increase in lifetime earnings after the costs of college for bachelor's degrees at 1,759 institutions for 300 unique programs. The findings were drawn on data the U.S. Department of Education pulled from the College Scorecard and Census Bureau surveys on income.

Across the board, those who graduated on time netted a median ROI of $306,000. Yet, over a quarter of programs had negative returns. Engineering, computer science, nursing and economics could produce returns of $1 million or more, while art, music, religion and psychology frequently generated "a zero or even negative financial value."

The worth of college majors: distribution of return-on-investment by major category

The worth of college majors: distribution of return-on-investment by major category. Source: The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity

When a student took longer than four years to earn the degree or dropped out, the median ROI declined to $129,000. In non-completion scenarios, 28 percent of degree programs showed a negative return.

Even the individual programs within the same institution could offer results with huge differences, explained researcher Preston Cooper, a FREOOP visiting fellow. For example, graduates of the University of Pennsylvania's finance major showed median earnings of more than $288,000 by age 35, while graduates of U Penn's film and photographic arts program could expect earnings of $45,000 by that same age.

The cost of the school also has an impact on ROI. Programs at those institutions with net tuition above $12,700 ("the most expensive") have a median completion-adjusted ROI of $198,000, compared to $129,000 across all schools. But, as the report pointed out, while attending a pricier school "might boost ROI at the margins," more than four in five arts and music programs and three in five psychology programs in those schools still had a negative ROI. And 15 percent of the programs in the cheapest schools (where net tuition was less than $2,000) had payoffs greater than $500,000, particularly for students in engineering, computer science and nursing.

Yet, exceptions exist, Cooper noted, even in the arts: "Michigan Technological University operates a program in drama and stagecraft that delivers ROI of $795,000. Music students at the University of Texas-Austin can expect an ROI of $586,000. Two philosophy programs (the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College) each have an ROI above $1 million."

While "students constantly hear the refrain that they must attend college to be successful ... as this report shows, the decision to attend college is less important than the choices that come next: which school to attend, and which subject to study," Cooper wrote. "The most important financial question [students and families] can answer is not whether college is worth it, but how they can make college worth it."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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