A bachelor's degree at Princeton may cost almost $200,000, but a graduate of the Ivy League college can earn at least $1 million more over 30 years than a graduate from most New Jersey public colleges, according to an analysis by PayScale, a company that compiles salary data.
Most bachelor's degrees from public state colleges will be worth $300,000 to $400,000 more than a high school diploma over the same period, according to the online analysis of the "return on investment," or ROI, of a bachelor's degree. Students can improve their return by majoring in more high-paying fields such as engineering and making sure they graduate in four years, the data show.
Among New Jersey colleges aside from Princeton, which had the seventh highest ROI, the top score went to the private Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, Hudson County, which ranked 30th. The cost of a Stevens degree was high at $222,600, but its ROI was also high at $1,111,000.
Among public state colleges, the New Jersey Institute of Technology had the highest ranking, at 81st for in-state students. The ranking showed the degree cost at $117,400, but a 30-year ROI of $783,900, or 11.6 percent. The College of New Jersey ranked 116th with a cost of $92,810 and a 12 percent ROI of $692,500.
Richard Stockton College ranked 395th with a degree cost of $105,600 and 9.5 percent ROI of $344,300. Rowan University ranked 461st with a cost of $122,600 and an 8.7 percent ROI of $298,500. The ranking included 852 colleges nationwide.
The ranking based the cost on how long it took a typical student at that college to graduate, so some costs were based on five and even six years of attendance.
Experts who track college costs said the report is valuable as families debate their college choices. But they said each family must look at its goals for college, and society at large should also look at the value of jobs, not just how much they pay.
"The way to measure return should not be just salaries," said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability in Washington, D.C. "There is also a social benefit to having teachers. But this does raise a larger policy issue of public subsidies for higher education and how they should be used."
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the top-ranked school with a return on investment, or ROI, of $1.7 million, the PayScale analysis shows. Princeton's ROI was $1.5 million, with an average cost of $187,700 to obtain a bachelor's degree.
For parents attending freshman orientation at Richard Stockton College last week, cost is a huge factor in their decision. Some questioned whether an expensive private college degree would still be worth more if most of the funds to pay for it were borrowed and had to be paid back with interest.
The Project on Student Debt's 2008 report found that 66 percent of New Jersey college students graduated with some debt. The average amount was $18,835 for those graduating from public colleges and $26,511 for those attending a private college.
Kim and Mike Voorhees' two children are both attending Stockton this fall. Their son Michael will be a junior transfer student and daughter Brianne will be a freshman. Both will commute from home in Manahawkin, Ocean County, to save on housing costs. Both also want to become dentists, so their parents are adding the cost of dental school into the long-range education plan.
"Finances are a big part of the decision to come here," Kim Voorhees said. "And it's why they're both commuting. But if they do become dentists, it will be a good investment."
PayScale ranked engineering fields as eight of the top 10 paying majors for graduates with bachelor's degrees, and many of the top-ranked colleges had strong engineering programs.
Local college officials had not reviewed the ranking, but said they believe students get good value for the money. Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona said there are also regional and geographic differences among salaries and jobs available to graduates.
Wellman suggested that admissions selectivity also plays a role in the jobs graduates are offered.
Edie Irons, communications director for the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt, agreed that students who come from "privilege and position" often have an advantage after graduation. But still, she said, the ROI at any college is a gamble.
"There is no guarantee that a graduate will get that high-paying job, especially in the recession," she said.
Parents must look at their costs today, Irons said, and not just hope that a private college will pay off down the road.
"Parents should make long-term decisions and not just say their child should go to their dream college at any cost, especially if they end up with huge debt," she said.
Contact Diane D'Amico:
What a college degree is worth
The following charts show colleges and their rank on the PayScale analysis; the average return on investment, or ROI, after 30 years for graduates with a bachelor's degree; and the 2009 average starting salary for graduates.
The degree cost is based on the annual cost of attendance multiplied by the average number of years it takes the majority of students to graduate. The ROI is calculated as the gain in median pay over a high school graduate over 30 years.
Massachusetts Institute of Tech. 1 $189,300 $1,688,000 $71,100
California Institute of Tech. 2 $181,100 $1,644,000 $69,700
Harvard University 3 $189,600 $1,631,000 $60,000
Harvey Mudd College 4 $187,700 $1,627,000 $60,000
Dartmouth College 5 $188,400 $1,587,000 $58,200
Stanford University 6 $191,800 $1,565,000 $67,500
Princeton University 7 $187,700 $1,517,000 $65,000
Yale University 8 $194,200 $1,392,000 $56,000
University of Notre Dame 9 $181,900 $1,384,000 $55,300
University of Pennsylvania 10 $191,300 $1,361,000 $60,400