Just 18% of College Students Rank ROI as a Top Factor in College Choice

The students BestColleges surveyed care more about affordability and outcomes than post-grad salary.
By
portrait of Meg Embry
Meg Embry
Read Full Bio

Writer

Meg Embry is a writer at BestColleges covering all things career and education related. An award-winning journalist and editor, she has lived and worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States....
Published on November 2, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images


Data Summary

  • Check
    The majority of students (53%) rank affordability as the most important factor when choosing a school, with student outcomes (39%) and flexibility and accessibility (36%) following close behind.
  • Check
    ROI lands in eighth place — behind college reputation, ease of admissions, school size, and faculty resources.
  • Check
    Business students are more likely to care about ROI than humanities students (22% vs. 14%).
  • Check
    Men are almost twice as likely as women to rank ROI as a top factor (24% vs. 13%).

This report is part of BestColleges' 2023 College Choice and Admissions Survey.

Students are more skeptical than ever about the value of a college education. Is college even worth it? This question has dominated the national conversation for years.

The response — by universities, journalists, and college rankings experts — has been to focus on the so-called return on investment (ROI) of different college programs. Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, for example, has been trying to crack the return-on-investment code since 2019.

But in BestColleges' newest survey, students tell us they don't actually care that much about ROI. In fact, only 18% think it's important to consider earnings after graduation when choosing a school.

Students Rank ROI Behind Nearly Everything Else

We asked 1,000 students about the most important factors in their college decision-making process. Of nine factors involving cost, enrollment, and admissions, students rank affordability (53%) and student outcomes (39%) at the top.

ROI (e.g. salary after graduation) landed in eighth place — behind flexibility, college reputation, ease of admissions, school size, and faculty resources.

BestColleges often highlights ROI as an important metric for students who are deciding on schools or programs.

For the purposes of this survey, we used ROI to represent post-graduation salary. We believe that students should have some idea of whether or not their investment will pay off:

  • Will you be able to get a job in your chosen field?
  • Will your salary be sufficient to cover your student loans?
  • Will you be able to meet your other financial goals?
  • Will the degree you choose help you build the kind of life you want?

But for many students, the perceived return on their higher education may not be measured in dollars. A 2022 BestColleges survey suggests that students don't only go to college to make money. Pursuing a passion was the top reason many students cited for going to college.

And while passion projects aren't always the most lucrative, that's not to say they don't "pay off" in other ways.

Business Students, Men Most Likely to Weigh ROI

It may not come as a surprise that business students and STEM students factor future earnings into their decision-making process at higher rates than humanities students. In our survey, 22% of business majors and 21% of STEM majors versus just 14% of humanities students say ROI was a top factor in their college choice.

STEM and business majors can typically expect to make higher median wages than most humanities graduates at the beginning and middle of their careers.

Of our survey-takers, men are overrepresented in the lucrative fields of business and STEM, including computer science and engineering. Women dominate in lower-paying majors like humanities and social sciences.

That gender breakdown maps closely onto the ROI gender gap revealed by our survey, with men almost twice as likely to rank salary after graduation as a top factor compared to women (24% vs 13%).

Did You Know...

Even when women choose to go into lucrative, male-dominated fields like STEM, they still get paid less (and promoted less) than their male counterparts. Which is to say, college doesn't pay off for women the way it does for men.

The respondents most likely to see a good return on investment from their college choice — that is, men in high-paying majors — are also most likely to prioritize ROI in their decision-making, according to our survey.

Graduate Students, Millennials Slightly More Concerned About ROI

Graduate student respondents give a little more weight to ROI (21%) than undergraduates (17%).

Similarly, a few more millennial respondents rank ROI as a top factor in their college decisions than Gen Z respondents (21% vs. 16%).

But overall, most respondents agree: The dollar amount on their post-graduation paycheck just wasn't their first concern when picking a school.

Why ROI Still Matters

Measuring the return on investment of a college education isn't always as straightforward as comparing paychecks.

In fact, we prefer to consider the factors respondents rank as most important — affordability, flexibility, and student outcomes — in addition to potential future earnings as part of BestColleges' larger ROI calculations.

This is why, when you're trying to choose the school with the best return on investment, it's important to look for institutions that will:

  • Reduce your financial investment, either through affordable tuition or excellent student aid packages
  • Reduce the burden of your time investment by providing a flexible and accessible curriculum
  • Provide resources to help you succeed and secure a career that can pay the bills (whether or not that's your top concern right now)

Methodology

This survey was conducted from Sept. 29-Oct. 5, 2023, and was fielded by Pure Spectrum. Survey participants included 1,000 respondents nationwide who were currently enrolled in an on-campus, online, or hybrid undergraduate or graduate degree program. Respondents were 17-49 years of age, with the majority (95%) ages 18-38, and currently pursuing an associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degree. The respondents for the survey were screened by various quality checks, including systems like Relevant ID, and responses were manually reviewed to ensure consistency and accuracy.