If A Lucrative Career Is Your Goal, You Shouldn’t Choose These Schools

By Staff

If you’re considering college for yourself or a child, do yourself a favor: think carefully about these schools. In March, The Atlantic published a list of schools with a dubious distinction: all of them had a 20-year net negative return of at least $30,000. At some schools, depending on their majors, a typical high school grad will have earned more than some of the graduates by nearly $200,000, the magazine reported.

Although some of the schools on the list were relatively well-regarded, majors such as arts, humanities and education showed a very poor rate of return, The Atlantic reported. An education major from Virginia Commonwealth fell $169,000 into the earnings hole.

Most of the schools on the list are public colleges, yet a few are private institutions. A representative for Shaw University, one of the schools listed in the article, said in a statement to CNBC that the article’s methodology was “seriously flawed,” and did not “take into account the many factors that make a university a ‘good return on investment’.”

Here are the 11 schools in PayScale’s data with a 20-year net return worse than negative-$30,000. In other words: these are the schools where PayScale determined that not going to college is at least $30,000 more valuable than taking the time to pay for and graduate from one of these schools.

It gets worse. The self-reported earnings of art majors from Murray State are so low that after two decades, a typical high school grad will have out-earned them by nearly $200,000. One thing to keep in mind is that these estimates come from self-reported income. Self-reported income tends to skew up, because humans are a proud species, and we care more about our feelings than strict honesty with anonymous pollsters.

Second, PayScale calculates the next 20 years in earnings by inferring from the last 20 years. Sounds reasonable. But like any assumption, this carries risks. The “most coveted major” changes from time to time. If biomedical engineering becomes the next big VC category, scientists in California will be in higher demand than software engineers, whose earnings forecast might fall. PayScale can’t predict that future. Moreover, if a school dramatically expanded a high-value program (like engineering) in the last five years, it might raise the financial value of its students in a way that PayScale doesn’t full account for, since this research looks back two decades. In short, like most studies of this kind, the findings are fascinating and worth remembering and quoting—but also worth contextualizing.

Finally, as Jordan Weissmann notes, PayScale can tell us which colleges graduate the richest students. But it can’t tell us which colleges make the biggest delta in student outcomes, which might be a more important question for college counselors and families. For that, you would need to study a huge group of similar kids, some of whom went to great colleges, some to middling colleges, and some to bad ones, and measure the difference. When we measure lifetime earnings of students graduating from elite (and poor) colleges, we’re measuring both the quality of the college and the earnings potential of the student attending that college before they stepped foot on campus.