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Published: Oct 25, 2021 3 min read
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College is getting more expensive by the year, and for some students, a diploma isn’t worth the rising price tag.

So says “Is College Worth It?,” a new report from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP). The study looks at the return on investment (ROI) — or how much more a student can expect to make in his or her lifetime after graduating from close to 30,000 U.S. bachelor’s degree programs.

For some students, particularly those in certain tech, economics and healthcare fields, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Like engineering majors — 95% of which can expect to make more than $80,000 by mid-career, according to FREOPP. But 28% of college degree programs actually leave alumni “financially worse off than if they had never gone to college at all,” meaning graduates don't earn enough to recoup the money they spent earning the degree, according to the report. The worst offenders? Only 1% of psychology graduates will earn more than $80,000 a year by the time they're 35, the reports says, and the odds aren't much better for those in education and the arts.

The cost of a college education has long undermined the value of a degree. In the last decade alone, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions grew by 16% in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the College Board. With the average student loan debt hovering around $30,000 per borrower, deciding where to study and what to major in can be risky business.

Institution matters a great deal: Princeton University’s economics program gives students a better ROI than the University of Pennsylvania's. But major plays an outsized role even at some of the most competitive schools in the country. UPenn’s finance major is one of the most lucrative programs in the U.S., FREOPP says, with most graduates raking in over $288,000 by the age of 35. Film majors from the same school, on the other hand, make just over $45,000 by that age.

What a student chooses to major in, the researchers conclude, “is perhaps the most important financial decision he or she will ever make.”

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