March 02, 2017


Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck, 2017 Edition. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Kristen O’Toole, and the Staff of the Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $21.99.

     Gone are the days in which colleges were supposed to provide a strong general education, the ingredients of a well-rounded person who could live a well-rounded life. No one has time for that anymore, and few have the inclination, anyway. ROI, return on investment, is now what college is all about, and the return needs to be quantifiable, not some evanescent concept such as “learning to be a better person.” There will be plenty of time for that after retirement, assuming one can afford to retire and is inclined at that point to the contemplative life – and not hampered by health issues. But to be able to afford retirement in the far-distant future, one must attain significant financial security for many decades, and that brings us right back to college as training ground for high-paying professions. Or at least ones that quickly pay back the cost of getting the education that is a prerequisite for doing that particular type of work.

     This scenario leads directly to Colleges That Pay You Back, a no-nonsense analysis of what it costs to attend each of hundreds of schools (including a calculation of how much financial aid those schools provide, since that figures into the cost of attendance), and how high students’ salaries are likely to be immediately after graduation and some years down the road. There isn’t a better book out there for students and families looking to maximize the financial and career impact of choosing a school. To be sure, the book presents the usual disclaimers about not regarding college as purely a way to have more income in adult life: “Your choice of major should not depend solely on your expected starting salary, but also on your academic interests, the subjects you are passionate about, and the type of career you’re interested in.” Even if this is sincerely written, it is worth about as much as most disclaimers, which is to say, not very much, since it is part of the introduction to a section called “Great Schools for the Highest Paying Majors” that neatly quantifies not only the median starting salary for fresh-out-of-college employees but also the mid-career expectation in each field. There are excellent lists of colleges to consider if you are interested in aerospace engineering, architectural engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering, software engineering, systems engineering, as well as four types of engineering technologies. So many choices! But this is not to say the social sciences are entirely absent: there are lists for economics and international relations.

     Colleges That Pay You Back does not intend to be hard-hearted, only hard-headed. Parents who attended college at a time when majors such as psychology, English, philosophy, theater and music were deemed as worthy as those in hard science and business may be startled and may even feel wistful as they peruse this data-heavy, very well-organized look at each school’s student profile, selectivity, financial facts, and career information – the last of which specifically includes an “ROI rating.” Today’s college attendees need to know how to make it in a very difficult, fast-changing workplace, and the book quantifies advantages as much as it can, while also including more-subjective elements such as the quality of each college’s career placement and alumni network – a key element to getting ahead in the contemporary version of “it’s not what you know, it’s whom you know” (non-sticklers for accurate English may say “it’s who you know,” and no one will care). What is interesting is that many of the top 50 places in Colleges That Pay You Back are exceptionally good all-around schools, so even if you do not take one of the currently favored majors and go into one of the currently hot professions, there is a good chance – thanks largely to strong alumni networks – that you will still do well in life, financially speaking, if you attend one of these schools. That, of course, assumes you can get in and can afford to attend – but given these schools’ outreach to “under-represented” groups and their extensive endowments, that is certainly a possibility for more students now than it would have been a few decades ago.

     Nevertheless, the top-listed schools do lean largely in the direction of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Princeton University comes in at No. 1, followed by Stanford, MIT, Harvey Mudd College, and California Institute of Technology. Other schools with a longstanding reputation for overall excellence dot the top-50 list: Harvard (No. 6), Duke (No. 11), Columbia (No. 24), Tufts (No. 31), Johns Hopkins (No. 39). Students may want to search the top-50 list for excellent pay-you-back schools that are somewhat less-known in this context, such as Brigham Young University (No. 18), Hamilton College (No. 21), Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (No. 29), or Wabash College (No. 38). But before doing that search, and indeed before using Colleges That Pay You Back in any way, students need to spend some time looking within themselves and deciding what they, not their friends and not some amorphous notion of “society as a whole,” want to get out of attending college. Colleges That Pay You Back is an excellent resource for those with a straightforwardly economic view of a college education, and there is enough variety in the schools profiled here – not just the top 50 – so students with that viewpoint will find many different ways of accommodating it. But students who see the possibility of something in college beyond the notion of trading college-education dollars for a greater number of employment dollars in the future should not deem this book the ultimate guide. There are other reasons to attend college, decreasingly common though they may be, and a student who subscribes to a non-economic model (or not a solely economic one) will find other college guides (including others from the Princeton Review) more congenial than this one.

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