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Colleges That "Pay Off" The Least

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Over the years here, I've preached about the perils of heavy student loan debt. Of course I also believe that in many cases, some additional help beyond merit- or need-based financial aid is needed to manage the ever-escalating cost of college, but careless accumulation of loan debt can easily alter one's future in a negative way.


In doing some research about the relationship between student loans and post-graduation "payback" (potential earnings), I found an interesting article from July of this year. Student loan crisis: These are the schools that pay off the least, by Samuel Stebbins, appeared in USA TODAY this past summer. The point of the article is to show how much graduates from the colleges cited earned (median) 10 years after starting college.

First of all, I wanted to understand the methodology used to create such an interesting study. Here's an insight into that, as stated at the end of the article:

To identify the 50 top-ranked colleges and universities that pay off the least, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the median earnings of former students who received federal financial aid that are working and not enrolled in school 10 years after matriculation from the U.S. Department of Education, last updated in May 2019. We ranked the schools based on the average earnings as a percent of annual tuition and fees. We only considered schools from U.S. News & World Report's 2019 rankings of the best national universities and liberal arts colleges, with the exception of U.S. service academies and universities for which data was not available. Tuition and fees data is for the 2018-2019 school year and also came from U.S. News & World Report. For public institutions, in-state tuition is listed.

Incidentally, the organization mentioned, "24/7 Wall Street," is a USA TODAY content partner that offers financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

After an introduction that recaps the enormity of the student loan debt crisis, the facts of which I've covered in great detail in past posts here, Stebbins gets to the point, which echoes the methodology statement:

at some of the nation's top-ranked colleges and universities, over half of all alumni who took out loans earn less than $40,000 per year. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the median earnings, 10 years after matriculation, of former students who received federal financial aid while attending school as a percentage of annual tuition and fees to identify the 49 top-ranked colleges that pay off the least. Earnings data by institution came from the U.S. Department of Education ...

He does note that the earnings used to rank schools are medians, and -- naturally -- don't represent what all alumni earn. Of course, earnings after graduation many times depend on the field of study rather than the college attended. So with that in mind, let's take a look at a dozen of the ranked schools that span this list from No. 50 to No. 1.

See Which Colleges Landed on the List

50. Sewanee-University of the South

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $45,500

• Annual cost of attendance: $54,614

• Location: Sewanee, Tenn.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,702

46. Connecticut College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $54,900

• Annual cost of attendance: $54,820

• Location: New London, Conn.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,817

41. Guilford College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $36,400

• Annual cost of attendance: $36,965

• Location: Greensboro, N.C.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,674

38. Mount Holyoke College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $48,600

• Annual cost of attendance: $49,998

• Location: South Hadley, Mass.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 2,210

33. Denison University

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $48,800

• Annual cost of attendance: $51,960

• Location: Granville, Ohio

• Undergraduate enrollment: 2,341

28. Occidental College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $50,600

• Annual cost of attendance: $54,686

• Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 2,055

21. Wheaton College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $48,400

• Annual cost of attendance: $52,626

• Location: Norton, Mass.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,688

18. Kenyon College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $48,700

• Annual cost of attendance: $55,930

• Location: Gambier, Ohio

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,677

12. Reed College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $42,200

• Annual cost of attendance: $54,200

• Location: Portland, Ore.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 1,415

9. Oberlin College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $40,800

• Annual cost of attendance: $55,052

• Location: Oberlin, Ohio

• Undergraduate enrollment: 2,827

6. St. John's College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $36,900

• Annual cost of attendance: $53,218

• Location: Annapolis, Md.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 458

1. Bennington College

• Median earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $29,500

• Annual cost of attendance: $53,860

• Location: Bennington, Vt.

• Undergraduate enrollment: 775

If you take the time to scan the entire list, or just the dozen I've highlighted above, you should see a trend emerging. The median earnings 10 years after entering college are, in most cases, less -- in some cases well less -- than the cost of just one year of attendance. Think about that for a moment.

Using the number one example, Bennington College, we see an even greater disparity between that earnings figure and annual cost when we include room, board and fees, which total $74,150. Let's say you can graduate in four years at the current cost level, which will rise, no doubt. Those four years would total $296,600. Granted, there would likely be some grant (no-repay) aid involved for qualified students, but there also would almost certainly be loans, too. I'm trying to imagine the loan-debt life of a Bennington graduate earning less than $30,000 after getting a $300,000 four-year degree there.

Again: the perils of loan debt. Study this article, the schools and their stats. The numbers speak for themselves. I hope they speak to you.