Does College Pay Off? A Comprehensive Return On Investment Analysis


Preston Cooper
May 8, 2024
Key Points
This report estimates return on investment (ROI) — how much college increases lifetime earnings, minus the costs of college — for 53,000 different degree and certificate programs.
Bachelor’s degree programs have a median ROI of $160,000, but the payoff varies by field of study. Engineering, computer science, nursing, and economics degrees have the highest ROI.
Associate degree and certificate programs have variable ROI, depending on the field of study. Two-year degrees in liberal arts have no ROI, while certificates in the technical trades have a higher payoff than the typical bachelor’s degree.
Nearly half of master’s degree programs leave students financially worse off. However, professional degrees in law, medicine, and dentistry are extremely lucrative.
Around a third of federal Pell Grant and student loan funding pays for programs that do not provide students with a return on investment.
Executive Summary
In recent years, young Americans have expressed more skepticism about the financial value of higher education. While prospective students often ask themselves if college is worth it, this report shows the more important question is when college is worth it.