- On average, 60% of those who enter college earn more than high school graduates a decade later, according to new return-on-investment data released Tuesday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
- Drilling down to look at earnings by the institutions students attended revealed a substantial number of laggards, however. At 30% of all colleges examined — 1,233 institutions — more than half of students earned less than high school graduates did 10 years after enrollment.
- Private colleges offering mostly bachelor's degrees topped a list of institutions providing the highest returns on investment 40 years after enrollment, found Georgetown CEW, which based its rankings on updated data from the federal government's College Scorecard. Institutions offering mostly certificates or associate degrees crowded a list of colleges with the highest returns on investment 10 years after enrollment thanks to their lower upfront costs, but they generally fell behind bachelor's-degree-granting colleges over the longer time frame because of lower student earnings.
Interest in colleges' return on investment runs high because it is a key selling point for higher ed in an era of high tuition prices, substantial tuition discounts and concerns about student debt.
Georgetown CEW has been working to explore institutions' return on investment for years. Tuesday's report follows a similar set of rankings the center released in 2019. It has also looked at specific slices of the higher ed market, including in a report released in January that found public bachelor's-degree-granting institutions offer low-income students the best median return on investment.
Other groups and think tanks have worked to gauge colleges' return on investment as well. Last week, the Bipartisan Policy Center published research finding public colleges are most likely to provide students with a positive return, while for-profit institutions and some private nonprofits with programs shorter than two years were less likely to do so.
The new Georgetown CEW research shows public colleges tending to outperform private ones across both 10-year and 40-year time horizons. Researchers pointed out public institutions charge less in tuition, often resulting in less debt for students to pay off.
Returns for four-year public institutions averaged $1.03 million 40 years after enrollment, the new report found. Returns for four-year private nonprofit institutions over that time span averaged $984,000.
But individual results may vary. Georgetown CEW researchers found some for-profit colleges offering returns over $1 million at the 40-year time horizon, exceeding median returns for private institutions. And the list of institutions with the highest returns 40 years after enrollment leaned toward colleges focused on in-demand fields, like pharmacy schools and technology institutes.
"College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential, program of study, and institution," the center's director, Anthony Carnevale, said in a statement. "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."
Data advocates hope information on students' earnings and debt can help them avoid institutions that perform poorly and choose those that offer a better chance at long-term success. But some researchers question whether nuanced student outcomes data alone is enough to increase institutional accountability in a complex higher education market that is subsidized by the federal government.
Georgetown CEW is calling for a comprehensive career counseling system to help families make use of available data in their college decisions.