The 25 Colleges With The Worst Return On Investment (2023)

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh: Payscale says grads have a negative 30-year ROI of $228,000

UPDATE: Payscale has since revisited its data and determined that The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and Hilbert College should NOT be on the list of colleges with the worst ROI. See my new post here.

Back in May I wrote a piece about the 25 colleges that offer the best 30-year return on investment (ROI) according to salary listing website I noted how Payscale’s ROI list contrasted with Forbes’ annual list of best colleges. Forbes uses a methodology that includes more than a dozen measurements, from student evaluations to retention rates to levels of student indebtedness. The Forbes list is a great tool for making decisions about where your student should go to school.

But just 15% of the Forbes ranking is drawn from alumni compensation reported on Payscale. Given the tough economy, I figured that some prospective students and their families would be concerned mainly with the money students earn, compared to the amount a family must shell out to pay for a degree, especially now that the four-year tab for many private colleges exceeds $200,000.

Since I wrote that story, it has struck me that a list of the worst colleges for ROI would also be instructive. It turns out there are institutions of higher learning where the 30-year net ROI can be a substantial negative number, according to Payscale. In other words, despite Labor Department statistics showing that college grads consistently earn more than those who don’t get higher degrees, it’s possible to go to a school where a degree just doesn’t pay.

One example is the worst school on Payscale’s list of 1,511: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Perhaps it’s not surprising that an art school is at the bottom of the list. This is not a profession that traditionally pays well, unless you are the rare Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons who pulls out of the pack and strikes it rich. According to Payscale, the four-year cost of a degree at the Art Institute is $155,200. Looking 30 years out, a student who paid that tuition would have a negative return on investment of $228,000.

How is that possible? Payscale’s lead economist Katie Bardaro explains that the site’s methodology assumes that the people who go to college come from the top quarter of their high school classes. That group would likely get jobs straight out of high school and thus earn money for four to six years instead of paying tuition and fees. Payscale then looks backward, starting 30 years ago, at Art Institute alumni who graduated in 1983, 1984, 1985 and so forth. It takes the median salary those grads are earning now and adds up the numbers to get a 30-year ROI in today’s dollars. Then based on those figures and considering possible wage inflation, it projects 30 years ahead. Subtract the four-to-six-year cost of getting a degree at the Art Institute and that comes out to a substantial negative number.

I called the Art Institute for a response and got an email from spokesperson Natalia Derevyanny saying that Payscale’s number is misleading because half of the school’s 1,900 students graduate with “associate’s” or “diploma” programs that take just 18 months or less and don’t get counted in Payscale’s tally. Obviously those students get their degrees for a lower cost and enter the workforce sooner than those who earn bachelor’s degrees.

Bardaro maintains that Payscale’s data is reliable. People use the site to find out what a potential new job pays and/or whether they are earning a fair wage in their current post. In exchange for the data, users fill out questionnaires where they offer information about what they are making. The site has accumulated a rich data set of some 40 million user-submitted profiles. Bardaro says Payscale relied on hundreds of data points for smaller schools and thousands for large schools.

Several important notes: If an alum goes to graduate school, including business or law school, they don’t get counted because it’s impossible to know how the graduate degree has affected their earning power. So Payscale is missing many higher-earning alumni. It considers the number of students who finish their bachelor’s degrees at each school in four, five and six years, and weights the cost accordingly. And it assumes that students have paid the full sticker price, without aid, which also skews the results, since at many schools, the majority of students get aid.

For public schools, Payscale does two separate calculations, one for in-state tuition and the other for out-of-state. That’s why a state school like the University of Maine, Presque Island, with 1,450 students, appears twice on the “worst” list. The ROI for out-of-staters, who pay $122,100 for a four-year degree, is negative $167,000. Since in-staters pay $79,330 for a degree, their ROI, negative $124,000, is smaller.

Why does this particular Maine school do so poorly? Payscale speculates that it’s because it produces a lot of teachers, who tend to have small paychecks. The university’s response: Payscale is failing to count many “non-traditional” students who are working full- or part-time while they get their degrees, and living off campus at a much lower cost than Payscale calculates. Payscale also fails to count the school’s many transfer students.

The second-worst school: Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, PA. Its 30-year ROI is negative-$178,000 and its total four-year cost as of 2012 was $114,100. Not surprisingly for a Christian school, students tend to earn degrees in religious studies, which don’t lead to the most lucrative careers. But Valley Forge’s president, Don Meyer, disputes Payscale’s numbers. He says the school has greatly expanded its number of majors in the last 23 years and now offers 57 courses of study. While many of its 1,000 students focus on religion, 130 students are majoring in digital media, a more lucrative field, and the school has 50 business majors. “They are not basing their calculations on our school in 2013,” says Meyer.

The third-worst school is University of Maine at Presque Isle for out-of-state students, which I describe above and fifth is University of Maine at Presque Isle for in-staters.

No.4 is Miles College in Fairfield, AL, with a negative 30-year ROI of $136,000. As of 2012 the four-year cost of a degree was $92,280. Payscale says the most common majors at this school of 1,800 students are education, criminal justice and social work--again, not the most lucrative fields. (I asked for a response from Miles but didn’t hear back)

Sixth-worst is Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, with a 30-year negative ROI of $114,000 and a current cost of $116,100. Payscale says that this historically black college, with 1,600 students, produces a lot of grads who specialize in social work, criminal justice and psychology. But a spokeswoman says the school also has aviation, business and information management programs that are more lucrative.

Some more caveats about the list: I’ve only included responses from four schools. I’m sure all the schools have something to say about their inclusion on the list. As at Florida Memorial University, the ROI at each school may not be negative across the board, since students in some majors will earn more than others.

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Finally, an education can be valuable in ways that are not measured by money. They offer the opportunity to enrich students’ intellectual lives, to deepen their understanding of history, English, mathematics and the sciences, to make connections with professors and other students they wouldn’t otherwise make and to grow as informed members of society. It’s tough to put a price on those benefits.

That said, most of these schools did not make Forbes’ list of the top 650 colleges in the country. Exceptions: Meredith College, No. 507 on our list, a private women’s college in Raleigh, N.C. with 1,890 students. Payscale’s negative ROI may be off here because more than 90% of Meredith’s students get financial aid. Jackson State, No. 549, a historically black university in Jackson, MS with 9,000 students. Ashland University, No. 620, a school with 3,038 undergraduates in Ashland, OH, also may not be treated fairly by Payscale given that 98% of students get financial aid. And Ashland guarantees students that they will graduate in four years or have the tuition for extra time paid for by the university.

Keeping caveats in mind, here is Payscale’s list of the 25 schools with the worst return on investment:

1.The Art Institute of Pittsburgh

Four-year cost as of 2012: $155,200

30-year ROI: -$228,000

2.Valley Forge Christian College

Four-year cost as of 2012: $114,100

30-year ROI: -$178,000

4. University of Maine at Presque Isle (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $122,100

30-year ROI: -$167,000

4. Miles College – Fairfield, AL

Four-year cost as of 2012: $92,280

30-year ROI: -$178,000

5. University of Maine at Presque Isle (in-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $79,330

30-year ROI: -$124,000

6. Florida Memorial University

Four-year cost as of 2012: $116,110

30-year ROI: -$114,000

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7. Springfield College - Springfield, MA

Four-year cost as of 2012: $174,700

30-year ROI: -$101,000

8. Hibert College

Four-year cost as of 2012: $116,000

30-year ROI: -$89,100

9. Fayetteville State University (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $113,400

30-year ROI: -$82,600

10. Ozark Christian College

Four-year cost as of 2012: $78,000

30-year ROI: -$76,200

11. Meredith College

Four-year cost as of 2012: $150,400

30-year ROI: -$66,200

12. Medaille College

Four-year cost as of 2012: $139,700

30-year ROI: -$60,400

13. Shaw University

Four-year cost as of 2012: $110,700

30-year ROI: -$56,500

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14. Lakeland College – Plymouth, WI

Four-year cost as of 2012: $132,400

30-year ROI: -$51,300

15. University of Montevallo (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $111,000

30-year ROI: -$44,700

16. East Texas Baptist University

Four-year cost as of 2012: $114,900

30-year ROI: -$37,600

17. Fayetteville State University (in-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $62,480

30-year ROI: -$31,700

18. Black Hills State University (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $84,170

30-year ROI: -$27,900

19. Jackson State University (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $116,600

30-year ROI: -$24,700

20. Ashland University

Four-year cost as of 2012: $165,400

30-year ROI: -$24,700

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21. Ringling College of Art and Design

Four-year cost as of 2012: $202,600

30-year ROI: -$21,600

22. Mount Vernon Nazarene University

Four-year cost as of 2012: $133,200

30-year ROI: -$21,000

23. Francis Marion University (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $143,700

30-year ROI: -$18,400

24. University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff Campus (out-of-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $99,850

30-year ROI: -$18,200

25. Black Hills State University (in-state tuition)

Four-year cost as of 2012: $73,760

30-year ROI: -$17,500

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