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Published: May 01, 2018 4 min read
Students make their way across the campus grounds at the Colorado School of Mines on April 18, 2017 in Golden, Colorado.
Kathryn Scott—Denver Post via Getty Images

How much is an undergraduate degree really worth? The average 20-year payoff for a bachelor’s degree—even after factoring in tuition and other college costs—is roughly $225,000, according to salary data released Tuesday from PayScale.

That's how much more money bachelor’s degree holders earn compared with a high school graduate, minus how much they paid for the degree—a return-on-investment figure that PayScale calculates every year by looking at graduates of more than 1,400 colleges.

Yet how much an individual graduate can expect to earn from a college degree varies widely based on the school attended, the major selected, and industry chosen. PayScale's 2018 College ROI report, like previous research, shows that the highest earners tend to come from colleges that produce large numbers of science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) degrees. In fact, at 95 of the top 100 colleges, the highest-paying majors were computer science, math, economics, or engineering.

The national service academies, which don't charge students tuition, also rank highly in PayScale’s report. The overall top college this year is once again the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The U.S. Military Academy (commonly referred to as West Point) and U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis follow at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively.

PayScale uses salary data pulled from its 1.4 million survey respondents between 2007 and 2018. It then measures return on investment over a 20-year period in two separate ways: both by subtracting a college's sticker price from the 20-year earnings and by subtracting the average net price, after counting grants, from the 20-year earnings. Those figures are then compared to the 24-year earnings of high school graduates, with the longer time period meant to cover the wages lost while a student was enrolled in college.

The second calculation, using net price, tends to help private colleges, which often have sky-high sticker prices but large discount rates that bring down the actual price paid by students. When looking at the return on investment without considering financial aid, 46 of the top 100 schools are private colleges—but that number jumps to 57 once aid is factored in. (Relatedly, the average 20-year payoff jumps from $225,000 to $280,000 once aid is factored in.)

Because public four-year colleges educate nearly twice as many students as private four-year colleges, Money sorted the list to identify the state public colleges with the highest return on investment. (The list doesn't include the national service schools: Merchant Marine Academy, West Point, Annapolis, the Coast Guard Academy and the Air Force Academy.)

There are two important notes to keep in mind: PayScale's calculation doesn't measure the lifetime payoff of a college degree. Workers hit their peak earning years at around 40 for women and 49 for men, according to PayScale data. That means some of a graduate's highest-earning years will be outside of the 20-year arc PayScale is measuring.

Additionally, PayScale determines its earnings potential based on the cost for a student who graduates in four years. But at many colleges, students take longer than four years to graduate. The average four-year graduation rate at the 534 public colleges included in the study is about 28%. For private colleges, it’s 45%.

To look up a specific school and major or job combination, see the full report.