Personal Finance

Is college really worth it? Here's why it's so hard to figure out the return on investment

Key Points
  • Coming out of the pandemic, it's more important than ever for students and families to find colleges that offer the best value.
  • However, determining the return on your investment is somewhat subjective, one expert says.
How students can find scholarships and grants to help pay for college
How students can find scholarships and grants to help pay for college

Between sky-high costs and hefty student loan debt, more students and their families are questioning the value of a college degree.

While about 81% of college-bound juniors and seniors still see college as a worthwhile investment, only 42% of families feel confident about covering the cost, according to a report by Sallie Mae.

As a result, a growing number are opting out entirely. The number of undergraduates enrolled in college is now down 5.1% compared to two years ago, according to a separate report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — a loss of nearly 1 million students.

In fact, getting a diploma is almost always worth it in the long run, according to "The College Payoff," a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

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Bachelor's degree holders generally earn 84% more than those with just a high school diploma, the report said — and the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.

When broken down by areas of study, however, the difference is striking. 

These days, the top 10 best-paying majors are all related to engineering — with the exception of computer science, which ranks fifth out of all majors, according to the New York Federal Reserve's recent study of salaries for college graduates. 

Yet there are colleges that don't offer a decent return on investment at all, according to another study released by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

"There are institutions that don't pay off," Kevin Miller, the Center's associate director of higher education, said of primarily smaller for-profit colleges.

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"The student loan crisis makes it clear there's a lot of money at stake," Miller said. "If there's something we can do to make it less likely someone will go into debt for a useless credential, we should be doing that."

The College Transparency Act, which the House recently passed, aims to make it easier for families to measure the value of getting a degree and how it translates to job opportunities and salaries down the road. The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy R-La.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Tim Scott, R-S.C.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

"We need to know if these degrees are really creating social and economic mobility," said Nancy Zimpher, a senior fellow at the National Association of System Heads and the former chancellor of the State University of New York. 

"We have an economy where every penny counts," she added. "We have an obligation to be very clear about the cost of college and the return on investment."

There is no easy equation here.
Eric Greenberg
president of Greenberg Educational Group

However, there are a lot of other factors that can go in to determining the value of school, according to Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.

Emotional well-being and the quality of life should also be taken into account along with the cost, academic offerings, job placement, alumni networks and other preprofessional services, he said.   

Coming out of the pandemic, "students want a typical college experience."

"There is no easy equation here," he added. "One of the new realities is that return on investment is much more broadly defined now than it ever has been."

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