Only not-for-profit schools which grant bachelor degrees and for which Payscale had a statistically significant sample were considered for this report. Exclusion from the study is not a reflection on the quality of the institution, but simply indicates that we did not have enough verified data from the school’s alumni to publish an ROI ranking for it. We acquire our data from individuals who have completed the Payscale Salary Survey.
Payscale’s public-facing Research Center only samples a portion of our overall database and does not fully represent the sample utilized for calculating the earnings figures in the Payscale College ROI Report. The size of a school’s alumni sample is strongly correlated with the size of the school. Therefore, our samples are larger for larger schools. The average sample size for the included schools is 966 alumni profiles.
Payscale’s core business is building software that utilizes our data and compensation algorithm. Our public Research Center is only meant to give a glimpse into our full data set.
There are two main reasons why we don’t include alumni who went on to obtain a graduate degree. First, it is difficult to tease out how much of an individual’s earnings are impacted by their undergraduate education and how much is impacted by their graduate education. For example, if a student obtains a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and then goes on to earn a Master’s degree from Harvard University, we can’t objectively quantify what portion of their earnings is driven by their undergraduate education and what portion is driven by their graduate education.
Secondly, the cost structure of graduate school is highly variable and not easily obtained from one data source, whereas undergraduate education costs are recorded by the Department of Education. When costs are so varied and do not come from a single data source, it is near impossible to calculate a “typical” cost of a graduate degree. Somebody who goes on to earn a PhD may be able to waive all tuition costs through grants, teaching, etc., while an MBA student may be responsible for costs of up to $200,000.
The main question we are addressing with the College ROI Report is the typical financial return an undergraduate student receives from their educational choices. By focusing on those with only a bachelor’s degree, we can more explicitly answer this question.
The data used in Payscale’s College Return on Investment (ROI) Report is collected through our ongoing, online compensation survey. People complete the Payscale survey to understand their price in the labor market. Users provide data about their jobs, compensation, employer, demographics and educational background. In return, Payscale provides them with a detailed compensation report that compares their compensation to others like them.
This data is rigorously tested and verified before it is considered for reporting. Please see the Payscale methodology for more details.
The sample considered for the 2021 College ROI report was 1.6 million bachelor graduates with no higher degrees. The average sample size across the set of schools included was 966 profiles.
While it is true that at many schools the majority of students don’t pay the full stated price reported by colleges to the Department of Education, some portion of students do. It is also fairly difficult for a student to understand exactly what they’ll be expected to pay in tuition, even using the school’s net price calculators. And, further, students often don’t even realize that the stated price might be different than what they’ll actually pay, discouraging some portion of prospective students from even applying to high-cost colleges. It is Payscale’s position that while few students may be required to pay the full “sticker price,” it is most informative to provide a “worst case scenario” in terms of college cost and help inform students that their true cost to attend may vary. College Raptor is a great resource for estimating your net price across many schools at once.