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Articles / Applying to College / Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 1 of 2

Dec. 24, 2019

Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 1 of 2

Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 1 of 2

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We're in the midst of yet another college admissions season. This one has been more entertaining than usual because of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, in which the forthcoming trial of Lori Loughlin and her husband promises even more suspense than a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.


Current high school seniors who have been accepted Early Action have until May 1 to make their enrollment decisions. December's Early Decision acceptees, while having agreed to enroll, can still back out their commitments if their financial aid packages are deficient. Of course, remaining verdicts, the bulk of which are Regular Decision, will come in during the first quarter of 2020. Thus, lots of decisions will have to be made about where to go to college, which brings me to the point of this article:

Should You Go to College? Is It Worth It?

I'm not a naysayer about higher education. I've written multiple articles over the years endorsing the value of a college degree. I'm a college graduate as are my two children. So don't think that I'm trying to put a negative spin on the value of college. I'm not, but there appears to be mounting evidence indicating that what you pursue in college can make a big difference in how you view your higher education investment and the dividends it pays.

Thanks to recent studies, some data indicate that college may not be the best path -- or return on investment (ROI) -- for everyone. The specific data to which I refer today appear in a recent (December 17) article, Is College Worth it? Ranking the Best and Worst Degrees, by Francesca Ortegren, who notes:

College tuition is on the rise: The average cost of a 4-year degree is $26,000 in the United States, 3x more than it was in 1990. Even in-state tuition has increased 2.4x faster than income since 2009.

The discrepancy between income and tuition growth over time means that more household income is going towards college, and now over half of families have to borrow to cover those costs.

Slow income growth compounded with student loan repayment and accruing interest could mean that graduates won't recoup those costs very quickly ...

The article contains numerous graphics to support its claims, so I urge you to view them in context, since they are not compatible with my format here.

The point, then, appears to be: In light of the high cost of education are college degrees worth it? Ortegren contends:

In general, it seems like they are: people with a college education earn more money over their lifetime than people who never attended college, and it's easier to get a job with a degree. According to the Center on Education in the Workforce, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some college experience by 2028 and even those that don't are more likely to go to people with bachelor's degrees.

The 48% of Americans who have a bachelor's degree might be onto something, but what about the 13% who have a graduate or professional degree? Those degrees can require an additional 2 to 10 years of schooling before graduates can start earning back the money they spent on their education.

According to our analyses, many graduate degrees might not be worth the investment as returns diminish the more time you spend in school.

Note: Return on investment is the percentage of net lifetime earnings (lifetime earnings minus cost of degree) above lifetime earnings of the average high school graduate without any college.

Bachelor's Degrees Have Higher ROI Than Graduate Degrees

The following highlights gleaned from Ortegren's conclusions result from a detailed methodology explained at the end of the lengthy analysis. Accordingly, at least from all the analyses I've seen and written about here, which discuss the relative value of certain college majors, this rationale appears to be more detailed and, therefore, more authoritatively convincing, as witnessed by these key insights:

- People with a bachelor's degree earn $2.7 million more in their lifetime than high school graduates

- Spending more time in school doesn't always pay off: the ROI of bachelor's degrees (190%) is higher than that of master's (142%) and doctoral degrees (88%)

- The typical student spends $29,955 on student loans and interest for a bachelor's degree, $62,146 for a master's degree, and $100,166 for a doctorate

- High ROI doesn't always equate to job satisfaction: People who major in gerontology, social work, religion/religious studies, and human services find their careers most meaningful but have low ROI

- Careers related to plastics engineering, information sciences, industrial engineering, natural sciences, and operations research have high ROIs but degree holders don't find these jobs as meaningful

- Engineering majors (ocean, architectural, systems, chemical, nuclear, and petroleum) were among the highest ROIs, but all are expected to experience slower-than-average job growth through 2028

In my view, the two most immediately impressive takeaways from the above are (1) there appears to be diminishing returns for increasingly higher graduate degrees, and (2) there is no positive correlation between ROI and job satisfaction. They should grab your attention.

Getting Specific: Best and Worst College Majors

According to Ortegren, these are the best and worst majors for undergraduate and graduate students:

- Best bachelor degrees: operations research, petroleum engineering, biological and physical sciences, biopsychology, and gerontology

- Worst bachelor degrees: interior architecture; polymer/plastics engineering; real estate; English language and literature; and communication, journalism and related programs

- Best master's degrees: social work, computer science, behavioral sciences, information sciences, psychology

- Worst master's degrees: urban studies, international/global studies, anthropology, archeology, and business

- Best doctorates: psychology, business, social work, education, and religion/religious studies

- Worst doctorates: sociology, anthropology, computer science, English language and literature, and information sciences

Best and Worst Bachelor's Degrees

We ranked majors based on their return on investment, opportunity growth, and meaningfulness. We included all three metrics to establish a prediction of job satisfaction and stability.

More specifically, we chose return on investment because college not only costs a lot, but also takes many years to complete. With the rising cost of college and student debt, obtaining a college degree should lead to larger returns than what is lost by attending college.

Opportunity growth -- or the growth in job availability through 2028 -- was included to provide a metric of a graduate's ability to obtain a job after college, as well as his or her ability to growth professionally overtime.

Both return on investment and opportunity growth are related to financial well-being, but we also wanted to highlight the importance of having a meaningful career. People who find meaning in their jobs tend to be more engaged at work and are more satisfied with their jobs than those who don't.

That list begins with #1 Operations Research and ends with #49 Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs ...

This ends Part 1 of my review of this excellent analysis of the worthiness of college and its various majors and bachelor's degrees. Next time, in Part 2, I'll wrap things up with comments on:

- degrees with the highest and lowest ROI,

- most and least job growth in the next 10 years by degree,

- degrees people find the most and least meaningful,

- ROI of bachelor and master degree majors

(the diminishing returns of graduate degrees),

- lifetime earnings by degree type, and

- student loan and interest by degree type.

See you then.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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