These Schools Have the Highest ROI for Low-Income Students

Private, nonprofit schools like Harvard and Stanford dominate the top spots, but low-income students' ROI is best, on average, at public institutions.

Published February 7, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
These Schools Have the Highest ROI for Low-Income Students
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by askinkamberoglu / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

  • Low-income students are less likely to see high ROI on their college education.
  • The top 10 schools with the highest ROI for low-income students are private, nonprofits institutions that don't enroll many of those students.
  • But low-income students' ROI is best, on average, at public institutions.

Low-income college students are significantly less likely than their peers to see a high return on investment (ROI) in their education. The schools that offer the best ROI enroll few low-income students.

Those are the findings of the latest report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). It found that the top 10 schools to offer low-income students — those whose families earn $30,000 or less per year — the highest ROI are all private, nonprofit institutions. But those high returns aren't as impactful because the top institutions for ROI enroll a very low percentage of low-income students.

"All these schools combined in the top 20, if you add them up, enroll about the same number of Pell Grant recipients as one campus in the Cal State system," said Martin Van Der Werf, Director of Editorial and Education Policy at CEW, in an interview with BestColleges. "They admit less than 20% Pell students, and the overall average is around 33%."

“All these schools combined in the top 20 ... enroll about the same number of Pell Grant recipients as one campus in the Cal State system.”
Martin Van Der Werf, Director of Editorial and Education Policy at CEW

Georgetown University, Stanford University, and Harvard University earned the top three spots in CEW's list of schools that offer students the highest ROI — low-income students average 40-year earnings top $3 million. However, researchers found that the below list of schools that primarily award bachelor's degrees and cater to a larger number of low-income students also offer a high ROI.

Institution Type of Institution 40-Year Net Present Value Weighted Score Rank
Neumont College of Computer Science Private for-profit $1,477,000 21
SAE Expression College Private for-profit $1,138,000 33
Rutgers University, Newark Public $1,609,000 48
University of California, Riverside Public $1,220,000 50
Mount Saint Mary's University Private nonprofit $1,204,000 56
University of California, Irvine Public $1,435,000 65
Alice Lloyd College Private nonprofit $984,000 71
University of California, Davis Public $1,507,000 73
University of California, Berkeley Public $1,660,000 76
University of California, Los Angeles Public $1,627,000 80

Source: CEW

Unlike the report's general ROI list that ranks institutions solely by their 40-year net present value, this list is ranked by each institution's weighted score. Researchers at Georgetown compiled the weighted scores for each school by assigning more weight to the percentage of low-income students they enroll each year and lesser but equal weights to schools' graduation rates for Pell students and those students' 40-year earnings.

"In many ways, this list is better because it recognizes the schools that do the hard job of educating low-income students and giving them social mobility," Van Der Werf said.

Typically, for-profit institutions offer low ROI for low-income students. But Utah-based Neumont College of Computer Science and California-based SAE Expression College are exceptions to the rule, both offering returns of more than $1 million.

Still, low-income students' ROI is best, on average, at public institutions. During a 40-year timeframe they can expect to earn $951,000 after graduating from public schools, $863,000 from private nonprofit institutions, and $763,000 from for-profit schools.

Students pursuing associate degrees and certificates can also see high value returns exceeding $1 million. Graduates of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, an institution that primarily awards associate degrees, can expect an ROI of over $1.8 million. Graduates of Aviation Institute of Maintenance,Teterboro, that primarily awards certificates, can expect returns of $1.3 million.

Georgetown researchers recommend that low-income students hoping to select the best schools for themselves based on value analyze the data with assistance from a counselor. An advisor can help them understand the potential financial outcomes of their choice.