Brian O'Neill: Here's one way of grading value of college

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You might invest 200 grand in a college education but how much are you going to get back?

Sure, that's a crass question. Any liberal arts professor worth his or her office key should be able to give you 10 minutes on how a well-rounded education gives you the tools to confront and embrace life, in order to yadda yadda yadda, and so on and so forth.

I don't dispute that, but it's also true that the cost of a college diploma has become borderline extortionate. With two daughters in high school, I was pleased to find out that several Pennsylvania colleges scored pretty well on something called the 2014 College Return on Investment.

Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh outperformed higher-priced private universities in this commonwealth, and Shippensburg looks like a steal -- at least for the ones who manage to graduate.

That's the good news. The bad news is that more than 100 schools were judged to have a better return on investment than any Pennsylvania college or university.

These are the findings of PayScale.com. It touts itself as the world's largest "database of individual compensation profiles ... [with] more than 40 million salary profiles." It used that data to compute annual returns on investment for more than 900 institutions, claiming it gathered "the total cost to attend that school (tuition, room and board, books and supplies) weighted for the length of time it takes most students to graduate with a bachelor's degree."

Yes, lollygagging is factored in.

Here are Pennsylvania's top five schools ranked by annual return on investment (ROI). Public universities are shown with in-state tuition.

1. Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, $85,000 total cost; $307,600 20-year net return on investment; 8.1 percent annual ROI; 57 percent graduation rate

2. Penn State (main campus), $128,200 cost; $420,100 20-year return; 7.7 percent ROI; 86 percent graduation

3. Carnegie Mellon; $236,200; $678,500; 7.2 percent; 87 percent

4. University of Pennsylvania; $230,800; $641,100; 7 percent; 96 percent

4. Lafayette College; $220,600; $605,500; 7 percent; 91 percent

4. University of Pittsburgh; $121,900; $330,700; 7 percent; 79 percent

PayScale likes to compare the return from investing in college tuition to the earnings from 20-year U.S. Treasury bonds. The bonds have bounced around a 3.3 percent return lately, so a diploma from these colleges would return more than twice as much money as you'd earn if you went to work straight out of high school and handed all that tuition money to Uncle Sam for safekeeping.

Ten other Pennsylvania schools scored a return on investment of 6 percent or better. In descending order of return, they are Bucknell (6.8 percent), West Chester (6.7), Pitt-Johnstown (6.6), Lehigh (6.5), Bloomsburg (6.5), Millersville (6.5), Gannon (6.2), York College (6.2), Villanova (6.1), Temple (6.0).

Mind you, the way to read that is not to think that the average York grad will out-earn the average Villanova grad. The opposite is true. The Villanova grad is expected to earn a couple of hundred grand more over the course of two decades. With the York grad paying only about half as much in tuition, though, the return on investment there would be a bit better.

There are many problems with this snapshot, of course. First, no single cost fits all students. College choices turn on financial aid, and the student getting a partial or full ride will see a far greater return than the kid who doesn't.

Second, the student's major counts. The nation's top engineering schools scored a high return, but their graduates from another discipline may not do as well.

Third, as with standardized test scores, just because the kids sitting around your child do well -- or poorly -- doesn't mean your child will.

Fourth, I don't know about you, but I never heard of PayScale until yesterday.

Still, I'd agree with The Economist. The British newsmagazine recently took PayScale's findings and wrote that "many American universities offer lousy value for [the] money." I didn't mention any of Pennsylvania's bottom-dwellers, but they can be found at the website.

These rankings can't be the final word, but they ought to be worth a look before anyone sends a child and a fortune to a given school. As the professors say, knowledge is power.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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