Between the economic recession, rising tuition costs and a bleak job outlook for recent graduates, some students and parents have begun to question whether college is worth the cost. A Seattle organization calculates that the return on investment for Pittsburgh-based higher education has been in decline since 2010.
Yet, among Pittsburgh's numerous universities, there are bright spots, according to PayScale.com, a company that provides salary information to organizations and employees.
Robert Morris University ranked as the 10th best business school in the nation in terms of return on investment, or ROI, the only Pittsburgh institution to place within the top 10 in business. The rating is based on the tuition that students pay over four years as undergraduates compared to their average salaries after graduation.
"When we talk about our value proposition, about an RMU education being an investment, this is what we mean," RMU President Gregory G. Dell'Omo said in a press release Tuesday. "We are a university of choice for students who want academic excellence with a professional focus in a private school setting -- all for an affordable cost."
According to RMU's most recent placement report, 93 percent of the class of 2012 have a job or are enrolled full-time in graduate school a year after graduation.
But Mr. Dell'Omo wasn't inclined to take the PayScale.com ranking too seriously, noting that a multitude of university rankings are given each year. "Rankings have a good side and a bad side ... It's kind of a popularity contest," he said.
"We watch them, we don't live by them, we don't manage by them, but they are a good guide for us."
Payscale.com's ranking covered 1,511 universities, over 250 more than in its 2012 report. Pittsburgh's universities slipped in the 2013 overall rankings as compared to the year before.
Using the overall return-on-investment ranking, Carnegie Mellon University ranked 28th overall, dropping from 25 last year. Pitt moved down 36 spots from 276 to rank 312, while Duquesne dropped from 320 and is now ranked 678. RMU moved back 176 spots from 616 to 792.
Meanwhile, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh is ranked dead last at 1,511 with a 30-year net ROI -- the 30-year median pay for a 2012 bachelor's graduate -- of roughly negative $228,000, a 2012 four-year cost of tuition of $155,200 and a graduation rate of 37 percent.
The Art Institute rejected that finding. "Based on our data, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduates have done well despite a challenging economic environment," according to an official statement issued by the school Tuesday. "Most recently during the period of Jan. 1, 2011, through Dec. 31, 2011, 74.6 percent of all program graduates available for employment were employed in their field of study, or a related field, within six months of graduation."
The statement went on to say that calculating the return on investment for a college education is complicated.
"We are disappointed with the inclusion of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in this list. It is difficult to understand how getting a college degree will, over time, ever result in an overall negative return on investment."
The overall rankings are based on a number of factors including the 2012 total cost (defined by Payscale.com as "the sum of tuition and fees, room and board, as well as books and supplies for each academic term used in the analysis"), the 30-year net return on investment and the average amount of grant aid received.
The overall drop may be due in part to rising tuition costs.
According to Payscale.com, the University of Pittsburgh's 2012 four-year total in-state cost was $117,600, up $4,100 from 2011; Carnegie Mellon's went up from $221,100 in 2011 to $229,600 in 2012; and Duquesne's went up from $154,300 in 2011 to $160,600 in 2012.
"College is very expensive today, there's no doubt about it, whether it's a private school or a state institution," said Mr. Dell'Omo, who referenced RMU's attempts at keeping student costs low compared to other private schools.
Payscale.com declined to comment on the rankings.
Andrew Gretchko: email@example.com.