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4 surprises about the costs and benefits of college

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Thinkstock

You already know that getting a computer science degree from Stanford is a pretty good investment.

The rest of the college universe can be mystifying, however. It’s well-known that it’s generally better to have a college degree than not. Yet with the cost of college soaring and some graduates bearing a back-breaking amount of debt, traditional questions about where to go to school, what to major in and how much to pay have become fraught with anxiety. God forbid you should pay a fortune for a degree that won’t even get you a job.

The annual college return-on-investment report from PayScale provides some guidance for students (and parents) looking to stretch their education dollar as far as possible. Nobody will be startled to learn  tech and engineering students have the best career prospects, or that brand-name schools such as MIT, Princeton and Harvard are usually worth the money, if you can get in. But with nearly 1,000 schools offering hundreds of majors, there are bound to be important details that aren’t apparent in top 10 lists. Here are four surprises about the costs and benefits of college:

You can earn good pay in a “low-paying” field. Social workers and teachers aren’t in it for the money. But PayScale’s data show some people with degrees in traditionally low-paying fields earn considerably more than average. Four fields fall well below the median 20-year return on college investment across all schools and majors, which is about $261,000: education, social work, arts and humanities. (Details on methodology are here.) But in more than two dozen schools, graduates in arts and humanities (two separate fields) earned a return above the median. And grads of social-work programs earned a return above the median at four schools — Arizona State, Washington State, Penn State, and Cal State-Sacramento. Above-average results could come from programs that toss in some business and career instruction along with the core curriculum, or from graduates who generally go into higher-paying fields unrelated to their majors.

You can get a weak return in a lucrative field . At nearly 350 schools, graduates who majored in business — which generally pays well — earned a return below the median for all schools and majors. At nine schools, including Fayetteville State in North Carolina, the University of Montevallo in Alabama and Colorado Mesa University, students studying business actually earned a negative return, according to PayScale. That means they would have done better, on average, if they went to work right out of high school and never spent money on college. Officials at such universities typically point out they serve underprivileged populations that may struggle more in the job market no matter what, and that financial return isn’t the only reason to get a college degree.

You almost can’t go wrong with computer science. Only two of 288 schools that offer computer science — Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis and Virginia Commonwealth — produced a return below the median for their graduates. At the top of the scale, meanwhile, more than a dozen computer-science schools returned $1 million or more over 20 years, making this the top-performing field. Nursing is another can’t-miss field. It doesn’t pay as much at the top as computer science or engineering, but return on investment fell below the median at only three of 90 schools.

There are a lot of quirky bargains in higher ed. Harvey Mudd College in California provides the best return on investment of any school, overall, because of its unique combination of liberal arts instruction combined with science and technology. The Colorado School of Mines ranks 11th out of nearly 1,000 schools — ahead of Penn, Brown, Columbia, Yale and many other premiere universities — because of modest tuition, generous amounts of financial aid and strong earnings by grads. Regional technical schools such as Stevens Institute of Technology, Polytechnic Institute of New York and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, offer a far better return than popular, well-known schools such as Rice, Duke, Vanderbilt and Boston College. And there are nearly 100 schools that offer a return on your education dollar that’s twice the median or more. Investing in one of those might make you smart before you even get to college.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.