Which engineering schools offer the best value?

Sept. 20, 2012
Calculating return on investment helps determine the value of a university education.

Authored by:
Kenneth J. Korane
Managing Editor

With kids back in the classroom, no doubt many high-school seniors are researching colleges, filling out applications, and writing essays while their parents sweat over financial-aid forms. But it’s well worth the effort, right?

It’s a universal axiom that the best investment one can make is a college education. The average person with a bachelor’s degree earned about 65% more than a high-school graduate with no college in 2011, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the unemployment rate last year was 4.9% for those with four-year college degrees, versus 9.4% for high-school grads and 14.1% for those without a diploma.

Yet an all too common story today involves the student who racks up a sizable debt earning a liberal-arts degree and then can’t find a job. At least an engineering degree looks like a safer bet. According to the 2012 College Salary Report compiled by Seattle research firm PayScale, the 15 best undergraduate degrees for starting median pay were all in engineering, computer and physical sciences, and math — topped by petroleum engineers at $97,900/year. (See www.payscale.com/college-education-value)

Nonetheless, all engineering schools aren’t created equal. So where’s the best value? PayScale tries to answer that by calculating an education’s return on investment. The return is based on the median income of a degree holder over that of a high-school graduate. The investment is the cost of attending college, weighted for the number of years it takes the average student to graduate.

PayScale says Harvey Mudd College offers the best value with an annual ROI of 11.2%. Factor in financial aid, which most students receive, and the figure climbs to 13.1%. In dollars, that’s a $1,545,000 return over a 30 year period.

Others in PayScale’s top five are Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Note these are all private schools. Harvey Mudd’s tuition, room and board, books, and fees are $59,713 for the coming year, and the others are in the same ballpark. Many might find that a bit pricey, even with some aid thrown in.

PayScale’s highest ranked public school is the Colorado School of Mines with in-state costs around $25,000 and ROI of 13.3%. CSM has the added benefit of a picturesque campus in the foothills of the Rockies that’s within walking distance of the Coors brewery. But if you don’t want to study mining or petroleum engineering, it may not be the right choice.

Public universities including Georgia Tech and the Big Ten’s Illinois– Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, and Purdue rank high on the U.S. News list of top undergraduate engineering programs. All have costs in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. Relatively speaking, that’s pretty good value for in-state residents.

But the best?

With a tuition of zero, in pure monetary terms the best value for an engineering education lies with the military-service academies – West Point and the Naval and Air Force Academies. Of course, spring break in Afghanistan may not appeal to everyone.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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