February 15, 2018


Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck, 2018 Edition. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Stephen Koch, Pia Aliperti, and the Staff of the Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.

     The funniest words in the 2018 edition of Colleges That Pay You Back – which is priced a mere dollar higher than the 2017 edition – are on page 29. They are Nota bene. College students and would-be college students whose focus is on the best ROI (return on investment), as determined by the statistics and analyses in this book, will likely have not the slightest idea what the words mean. No, they are not pronounced “not a bean” or “note a bean,” and they have nothing to do with dietary matters or Post-Its. They are Latin, meaning “take careful note” or “note well.” But who needs Latin these days? Certainly not the intensely driven, earnings-focused soon-to-be college students at whom this book is targeted. Those students are most likely to be interested only in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and they will find plenty of schools to which to gravitate listed here. 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, or various engineering technologies (electrical engineering technology, environmental engineering, industrial technology, mechanical engineering technology).

     Student and parental naïveté about college has no place in these pages. Colleges That Pay You Back is a hard-headed look at the cost of attending 200 colleges (135 private, 65 public) and the likely payback on your investment in those college years – based on starting and mid-career salaries of graduates in a wide variety of fields. The notion of college as a broadening experience is long gone – in fact, undergraduate education has to some extent assumed the former mantle of graduate education, where the purpose is to become increasingly knowledgeable about a narrower and narrower field, eventually earning a super-high degree in which one proves one’s tremendous expertise in a vanishingly small area of knowledge (hence the old joke that says Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper”). Nowadays specialization starts in the undergraduate years and, on the evidence of Colleges That Pay You Back, even before admission: the book’s purpose is to help students use objective data to figure out what schools they would do best to attend if, with all the maturity of high-schoolers, they have already figured out what narrow focus they intend to have for the rest of their lives.

     Well, all right, things are not quite that cynical. Not yet. But they are getting there. The notion of college as just another commodity, of higher education as a job ticket and no more, makes considerable economic sense in the developed world in the 21st century. The question is how far to push the commoditization when one has a great deal of learning still to do about life, not just about, say, supply chain management (median starting salary $53,900; median mid-career salary $92,400). Parents who are on speaking terms with their high-school-student children may want to make this point while going through Colleges That Pay You Back with them: not all learning occurs in classrooms, and there is (or can be) more to college than a strict return on dollars invested. There are also time and social investments, among others, to consider. Of course, if the parents attended school in a less-intense era than the present and majored in, say, theater or music or, heaven forbid, Latin, little they say will likely carry much weight in the face of the onslaught of excellent quantifiable material in this book. It is absolutely true that there is no better book out there for students and families looking to maximize the financial and career impact of choosing a school. The question is whether that is the only impact to consider – and that query is one to be made within families, not in the pages of Colleges That Pay You Back.

     The book’s time-honored format includes statistics of all sorts and lists of all sorts compiled by merging, analyzing and tweaking those statistics. And many of the top schools in the lists are exceptionally good on an all-around basis, so even a student who does not take one of the currently favored majors and go into one of the currently hot professions has a good chance – thanks largely to strong alumni networks – of doing well in life, financially speaking, by attending one of these schools. That, of course, assumes the student can get in and can afford to attend – but given these schools’ outreach to “under-represented” groups and some extensive endowments, that is certainly a possibility for more students now than it would have been a few decades ago. There is actually little that is surprising in most of the lists here. The overall top-50 list starts with Stanford, followed by Princeton; that reverses the order of the first two from last year, but at this lofty level, it matters little. The top-50 list continues with MIT, California Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, Harvey Mudd College, Dartmouth, Williams, Yale, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Amherst, University of Virginia, University of California at Berkeley, and Georgia Institute of Technology. Other schools with a longstanding reputation for overall excellence dot the top-50 list: Columbia (No. 16), Duke (No. 20), Cornell (No. 22), College of William and Mary (No. 32). And 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 Wabash College (No. 18), University of Richmond (No. 39), Bates College (No. 42), and University of Florida (No. 50). But this book, and the college experience itself, are or at least can be about more than the dollar value of higher education and the speed with which one recoups what is spent. Students using Colleges That Pay You Back will find excellent material here – but will benefit most from the book if, before using it, they look inward and decide what they, not society or friends or book producers, want from a college education, and to what extent their focus is on return on investment. Nota bene.

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