Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce recently tried to determine when a college degree is worth the cost by analyzing the return on investment for more than 4,500 colleges and universities.
One clear but potentially surprising winner: Pharmacy schools.
The top three colleges in America for long-term return on investment, according to the survey, are the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Upstate New York, the St. Louis College of Pharmacy in Missouri, and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
The CEW's analysis measures and ranks each school by a metric called net present value (NPV), which weighs the upfront costs of going to school — including tuition, room, board, and other miscellaneous expenses — against your earnings over the course of a lifetime. The rankings looked at which schools offer grads a great return on investment 10 years and 40 years after graduation.
"There are a lot of non-obvious programs that actually have large financial benefits," says Martin Van Der Werf, CEW's associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy.
Those three pharmacy schools ranked in the top 3 for NPV after 40 years, meaning that they offer the best long-term value. Right behind them, at No. 4, is MIT.
The top 10 colleges for return on investment after 40 years
Pharmacist is one of the single highest earning professions in the United States – the federal Department of Labor ranks it at #24. As of May 2018, pharmacists earn a median salary of $126,120 per year, which is more than what typical nuclear engineers and air traffic controllers bring home.
That payoff comes relatively quickly for graduates of the top three pharmacy schools, too: Albany College and St. Louis College alums reported median earnings of about $124,000 a decade after graduation, while Massachusetts College grads earned about $116,000 at the same point.
Other than MIT, those three schools are the only ones where grads earned an average of over $100,000 just 10 years after graduation.
If you look at NPV after 10 years, Albany College and St. Louis College both rank in the top 10. This shows that they also offer strong short-term value, and are among the very few schools in the survey to consistently provide excellent value throughout the course of your life.
The price tag for these schools can be high: CEW estimates the net cost, which includes tuition, room, board, and fees, of attending Albany College and St. Louis College, at about $30,000/year, and nearly $38,000 for Massachusetts College.
Still, alums are able to pay off their debts quickly. After seven years, over 90% of grads from all three schools paid off at least part of their student loan capital. Only 114 schools in the survey — or about 2.7% of the 4,100 that reported student debt numbers — could claim that distinction.
The top 50 schools in the CEW rankings are probably a little easier to predict than the top three. Seven of eight Ivies made the cut (Brown is #83), as did Stanford, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, and a slew of other prestigious, private four-year schools. The only public colleges to rank that high were tech schools and maritime academies.
The United States Merchant Marine Academy, which trains "midshipmen" in many subject areas that are important if you want a career running a large ship, stands out as one of the best values in American higher education.
A big part of the reason: The federal government covers tuition and room and board, leaving students to cover just fees. By cost to attend, it ranks 3,980 out of the 4,529 schools. Graduates earn a median salary of $88,100 after 10 years, good enough to rank 13th nationwide, ahead of CalTech and Yale.
While the other four maritime academies on the list aren't quite as cheap as the Merchant Marine Academy, they all rank in the top 25 for NPV, and offer grads similarly good earning potential.
"You have to want to be a Merchant Marine to really get value out of going to the United States Merchant Marine Academy," says Van Der Werf. "I think one of our purposes in doing this too was not to specifically say that this is the only metric that matters in determining a good value, but it should probably be one metric that people might want to consider when they're thinking about the array of colleges that they could attend."
Ultimately, figuring out the best value college for you is something only you can do, and your calculus may involve several complicating factors including how much aid you get and whether grads in your field of choice tend to find good jobs. That being said, if you're considering becoming a pharmacist, it's useful to know you may well make a lot of money and be able to pay off your loans quickly.
Before you assess the financial benefits and drawbacks of a certain school, figure out whether that school can give you the life and career that you want. Once you've done that, you'll be ready to really determine the best value college for you.
"These schools might really work for you," says Van Der Werf. "But first of all, you'd have to want to be a pharmacist."
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