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Published: Apr 20, 2017 5 min read
University of Michigan Law School Library, Ann Arbor, MI
The University of Michigan, the top public university in Money's 2016 Best College rankings, is also one of the top public colleges in PayScale's return on investment report.
uschools—Getty Images

Economists have repeatedly shown that higher education pays off on average—that is, that most college graduates end up earning so much more than those who didn’t attend college, that they make back the cost of tuition, and typically get a six-figure “return on investment” by their mid 40s.

But the size of an individual student's payoff varies wildly depending on the student's major, the quality of the college and the price they paid for school. That's why a new analysis finds that it's not just the famous (and expensive) private schools that deliver the biggest financial return for your tuition dollars.

In fact, the top-ranking college in PayScale's newly released 2017 College ROI Report is a highly affordable public college: the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a service academy that offers free tuition. Its graduates out-earn peers with just a high school degree by more than $1 million over a 20-year period, PayScale found.

PayScale tallies earnings as a return on investment, or how much more you earn than a high school graduate, minus how much you paid for the degree. For students who pay the full sticker price, that math tends to disadvantage private colleges, since their sticker prices are so much higher than public universities. Even so, more than 60% of the top 50 colleges in PayScale's ranking are selective private schools. (Read about the colleges where studying the liberal arts pays off.)

But since the majority of college students attend public institutions in their home state, Money decided to look at the state schools most likely to pay off. (Although the Merchant Marine Academy is public, as one of the five U.S. service academies, it's not a state school.) We started with the schools' 20-year ROI, as calculated by PayScale based on in-state tuition, but then factored in the school's six-year graduation rate, eliminating any school where fewer than three-quarters of students earn a degree in that time period.

Overall, 15 different states have a college on the list. California, with its reputation for comparatively affordable colleges and its high average salaries, has seven—more than any other state.

While the following ranking is based on in-state costs, it's worth noting that PayScale also produces a ranking that factors in out-of-state tuition for public colleges—and that five of the schools on the following list actually make it into the top 20 even when considering that higher cost. Most of those colleges—Colorado School of Mines, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley, California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo, and the University of California-San Diego—are known for their successful science and technology departments.

College Net 20 Year ROI Acceptance Rate
Colorado School of Mines $883,000 38%
Georgia Institute of Technology $824,000 32%
University of California-Berkeley $732,000 17%
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo $678,000 31%
University of California-San Diego $623,000 34%
University of Virginia $601,000 30%
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University $582,000 73%
Texas A & M University-College Station $569,000 67%
SUNY at Binghamton $563,000 42%
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign $561,000 66%
University of Maryland-College Park $550,000 45%
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor $533,000 26%
University of Washington-Seattle Campus $531,000 53%
University of California-Los Angeles $527,000 17%
Rutgers University-New Brunswick $521,000 58%
The University of Texas at Austin $513,000 39%
University of California-Irvine $498,000 39%
College of William and Mary $493,000 34%
University of California-Santa Barbara $488,000 33%
University of Delaware $476,000 67%
University of California-Davis $472,000 38%
James Madison University $469,000 73%
University of Connecticut $464,000 53%
Miami University-Oxford $457,000 65%
Clemson University $447,000 51%

PayScale's income data is based on nearly 1.3 million respondents to salary surveys collected over the past 10 years.

PayScale also, by the way, calculates a return on investment for students who receive financial aid. That ranking tends to be dominated by tech colleges that are wealthy enough to award significant grant money—such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvey Mudd, and California Institute of Technology.