Special Report

50 Top Ranked Colleges That Pay Off the Least

According to a report published earlier this summer, college enrollment in the United States this fall is expected to be between 5% and 20% lower compared to the fall of 2019. The decline is likely largely due to the heightened health risk caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the hesitancy among some Americans to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their education during this time of economic uncertainty. College is an investment, and those with a degree are statistically more likely to earn higher salaries over their lifetimes than those without one. But depending on which school students graduate from, the return on investment varies substantially. 

24/7 Wall St. reviewed median earnings, 10 years after enrollment, of former students who received federal financial aid while attending school as a percentage of the average annual cost of attending their institution, net any grant money received. We listed the 50 schools that were ranked among the U.S. News & World Report 2020 National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges that had the lowest return on investment. 

At some of the nation’s top-ranked colleges and universities, the typical graduate earns a median income many times the average annual net price of attendance. In the 50 schools on this list, however, annual earnings among graduates range from less than 60% higher than annual cost to, in a few cases, even less than the annual net price. Net price and earnings data by institution came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

The average annual published cost of attending a private nonprofit four-year institution for the 2019-2020 school year in the United States is a little under $50,000, nearly 20% higher than it was just a decade prior. That figure represents the total amount paid, however, and the vast majority of students (nearly 90%) at private nonprofit schools receive grants or other financial aid. Even after accounting for that aid, however, students receiving financial aid must still on average cover $27,370 per year through loans or out of pocket. This is how much college cost the year you were born. Among the schools on this list, the average net price ranges from substantially less, as low as $14,790 in one case, to over $40,000 in several cases. The net price figure represents the cost of tuition and fees, books and supplies, and living expenses minus federal, state, and institutional scholarship aid for all undergraduate students receiving financial aid.

A number of the schools on this list are traditionally referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. These schools, formed to give greater opportunities to Black Americans who were systematically excluded from a postsecondary education, a chance at a college education. The presence of HBCUs on this list may not be an indictment of the quality or price of these schools, but rather evidence of the persistent inequalities in the U.S. job market. Black Americans with a college education earn substantially less than white Americans with a college education. Here is a look at the extent of racial income inequality in all 50 states

It is important to note that the earnings used to rank schools for this story are medians and are not representative of what all graduates earn. Earnings after graduation can often depend more on the field of study than the institution itself. These are the highest- and lowest-paying college majors.

Click here to see the 50 top ranked colleges that pay off the least