Receiving a college diploma comes at a cost. Besides the hours of studying, students usually find themselves buried in a mountain of debt by the end of their education. So every year, Payscale calculates college tuition costs, graduation rates, and returns on investments to compile a list of the values of every college in the U.S. So which ones just are not making a passing grade? Here’s the ranking of the colleges with the worst returns on investment — apply wisely!
25. Saint Augustine’s University – Raleigh, North Carolina
Return on Investment: -$77,700
The official motto for Saint Augustine’s University translates directly to “the truth will set you free,” but when it comes to this list the truth is harder to swallow, and definitely is not free. The Raleigh-based university is part of America’s group of historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs), and while the total enrollment of students is pretty small, with just 974 students, the price tag is large.
Students pay $129,000 for four years of school, but only 23% of those who enroll actually graduate in 4 years. For those who do graduate, most do not see much of a return for their investment, and are left with a diploma and a mountain of debt.
24. Stillman College – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Return on Investment: -$80,400
During the fall semester of 2018, Stillman College had only 615 students enrolled. And while some might be drawn to the private liberal arts school in Alabama for its small class sizes, others might want to be weary of the small return on investment that comes after a Stillman College diploma.
The total four year college tuition at Stillman adds up to $98,700, but over a 20 year span the net return on investment as calculated by Payscale amounts to -$80,400. And that is assuming that said student is one of the few that actually ends up graduating from Stillman. In total, the college has a graduation rate of only about 23%.
23. Unity College – Unity, Maine
Return on Investment: -$82,100
Just because something is environmentally friendly does not mean that it is also friendly on someone’s wallet. And that statement definitely holds true when it comes to Unity College. The private liberal arts school in Unity, Maine, advertises that it offers an education that emphasizes sustainability, environmental studies and natural resources.
But once students graduate, they might not have all the resources to pay back their student loans. Payscale reports that the 20 year net return on investment is a whopping -$82,100. And yet for the 54% of students who reach their graduation, their education comes with a 4 year cost of $151,000.
22. Wilson College – Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
Return on Investment: -$86,700
Sitting on a 300 acre campus in a small town in south-central Pennsylvania, Wilson College was known for 144 years to be an all women’s liberal arts school. That was until recently. In 2013, Wilson College accepted male students for the first time, and has been doing so ever since.
But no matter a person’s gender, they might want to consider the following stats before they decide to enroll. According to Payscale, Wilson College only has a 39 percent graduation rate, and those who graduate after spending over six-figures in college tuition ($156,000, to be exact), could see a 20 year return on investment of -$86,700. But for anyone who thinks that this math is bad, just wait for what comes next on this list.
21. Emory & Henry College – Emory, Virginia
Return on Investment: -$91,300
Not to be mistaken for Emory University in Georgia, which is said to have a $452,000 return on investment and a 91% graduation rate, Emory & Henry College graduates are not as lucky when it comes to Payscale’s calculations.
The private liberal arts school – the oldest in Southwest Virginia – costs about $179,000 over four years. But after about 20 years, the return on investment is a staggering -$91,300. Maybe this helps explain why the institution only has about a 54% graduation rate. And for a school that’s mascot is a wasp, those statistics have got to sting a little.
20. Brewton-Parker College – Mount Vernon, Georgia
Return on Investment: -$92,200
For those students who are looking to attend small college in a quiet town, Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia, might seem like the perfect option. The town’s entire population is only about 2,451 people, and almost half of those people – about 1,119 – are Brewton-Parker students.
But this small town education might come with a small payoff down the road. Brewton-Parker College students reportedly pay $113,000 on average for a four year college tuition. Fast forward 20 years later, and the net total return on investment is approximately -$92,200. And if that math doesn’t seem to great, consider Brewton-Parker’s meager graduation rate of only 17%.
19. Shaw University – Raleigh, North Carolina
Return on Investment: -$93,600
Shaw University has made a name for itself since it opened in 1865 as being the first historically black university in the Southern United States. For that reason, Shaw is lovingly referred to by some as the “mother of African-American colleges.” But sometimes even a mother’s love can come with a price.
For Shaw University students, that price is usually an average college tuition of about $118,000 over four years. In the end, all that love might not even pay off. Payscale found that, on average, the return on investment after 20 years is about -$93,600. No one would even need a college degree to know that those numbers are not so great for Shaw University graduates.
18. Paine College – Augusta, Georgia
Return on Investment: -$94,700
Paine College has been feeling the pain recently. The private Methodist school in Augusta, Georgia, has been challenged in court as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools have been arguing that Paine College should lose its regional accreditation after some financial issues. But it is not just the school that has been having financial issues, according to Payscale.
According to the reported rankings, students who pay $97,500 for a four year Paine College tuition receive a -$94,700 return on investment after 20 years. The graduation rate for Paine College also stands at an alarming 20%. But for a college whose motto is “emerging anew,” it seems that the graduates are emerging with a lot of debt, and little chance of paying it off quickly.
17. Rust College – Holly Springs, Mississippi
Return on Investment: -$97,100
On average, Rust College has an acceptance rate of about 43%. And those who are accepted into the Mississippi school are joining a long tradition. Rust College is known to be one of only ten historically black colleges and universities that is still operating, and was the second-oldest private school in all of Mississippi.
It seems that Rust College students are also joining a long line of college debt. For the $63,400 that it costs for a full tuition, room and board to attend the HBCU, Rust students usually have roughly -$97,100 return on investment over 20 years. But that’s nothing compared to another school in Mississippi.
16. Johnson University – Kimberlin Heights, Tennessee
Return on Investment: -$97,900
Johnson University is a Christian university tucked into the suburbs of Tennessee just about 12 miles east of Knoxville. Overall, Kimberlin Heights revolves mostly around the private university. But while the Johnson University Royals might get the royal treatment in their tiny town, it seems that the real world is not as kind to the school’s graduates.
On average, students pay approximately $89,800 over four years for their entire college tuition. After about 20 years, Payscale found that the return on investment is -$97,900. And with 56% of students graduating within 4 to 6 years, that means a lot of students are coming out with a pretty expensive diploma, and little hope to pay it off promptly.
15. Cazenovia College – Cazenovia, New York
Return on Investment: -$98,600
Located in the greater Syracuse area in Upstate New York, students atttend Casenovia College if they are looking for a small, liberal arts education with a small town feel. With only 915 undergraduate students, the intimate, independent college touts its ability to work one-on-one with students to help them succeed in the real world.
Unfortunately, the small, independent school comes with a pretty sizeable price tag. Over 4 years, Cazenovia College students shell out about $184,000 for college tuition, along with room and board and other costs. In the end, all that money might not be worth it, seeing that the average return on investment is about -$98,600.
14. St. Andrew’s University – Laurinburg, North Carolina
Return on Investment: -$98,800
For any potential college student who is seeking a picturesque college campus in a small town, look no further than St. Andrew’s University, formerly known as St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College. With a campus that holds a beautiful lake running right down the middle, what more could someone ask for? A pond? Well, it’s got that too.
But even with an idyllic campus, the St. Andrews Knights do not always leave their students ready for battle in the post-graduate world. The $167,000 in four-year college tuition leaves alumni with about a -$98,800 return on investment over 20 years. And that simply is not a pretty picture.
13. Benedict College – Columbia, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$105,600
Unlike many of the schools on this list, Benedict College is situated in a large city and hosts a pretty sizable student population, with about 2,247 calling themselves part of the Benedict College Tigers. And unlike many HBCUs, Benedict College was once a teachers’ college. But today, the former teachers’ college is getting a pretty bad grade when it comes to the success of its graduates.
Overall, Benedict College only has a 22% graduation rate according to Payscale. The website also found that for students who paid the $124,000 college tuition over four years, most saw an average of -$105,600 return on investment over 20 years. Sounds like a score of a C- at best.
12. Morris College – Sumter, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$106,800
Since its founding in 1908, Morris College has held the motto “Intrare Libris, Dispartire Servire,” or, in English, “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” While undergraduates at the South Carolina HBCU enter to learn, it seems that the Morris College education does not serve them so well upon their departure, at least, according to statistics.
Students who spend four years at Morris College usually spend about $92,200 in college tuition. But after about 20 years, that investment has not paid off for many former students. Payscale says that the 20 year return on investment is -$106,800. Those aren’t really numbers worth cheering over.
11. Montserrat College of Art – Beverly, Massachusetts
Return on Investment: -$107,400
Montserrat College of Art touts a state of the art campus for students looking to dive into the art world. The New England art school hosts only about 400 exceptionally skilled students and specializes in visual arts. But for a college that advertises the motto “Where Creativity Works,” many students enter the workforce and find themselves unable to match what they spend on their education.
While 56% of students graduate the art school in 4-6 years, their return on investment is usually a whopping -$107,400. And that’s after paying $169,000 in college tuition. But this is not the only art school that has not passed with flying colors. There’s one more on this list that is leaving students under mountains of debt.
10. Columbia International University – Columbia, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$115,700
We have got some more bad news for colleges in Columbia, South Carolina. Located just six miles from Benedict University (which is also, sadly, mentioned on this list), Columbia International University has also achieved a bad grade from Payscale’s ranking system.
Not be to mistaken with the ivy league Columbia University in New York, Columbia International University is a private Christian college founded in 1923. In fact, the undergraduate division of the college used to be called Bible College, before that became a common phrase. Today, undergraduates can expect to pay $133,000 for four years worth of tuition, followed by a dismal return on investment of about -$115,700.
9. Martin Luther College – New Ulm, Minnesota
Return on Investment: -$123,200
Martin Luther College has attracted students across the country for offering a more athletic vibe on their Minnesota Riverside campus. About one third of students at the college participate in varsity sports, with nearly two-thirds playing in intramural sports. But that does not mean that Martin Luther College has been able to stay it tip-top shape when it comes to Payscale’s assessment.
Considering that Martin Luther College requires their students to live on campus for all four years, the overall college tuition adds up. For $93,300 paid over 4 years of schooling, Martin Luther students usually see a -$123,200 return on investment 20 years later.
8. Claflin University – Orangeburg, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$133,900
In 1884, Claflin University, a historically black university, made history for awarding Alice Jackson Moorer and Annie Thortne diplomas, making them two of the first black women in the United States to gradate from college. Since then the college has been aiming to set their students up for success in the post-graduate world.
But over the many years of its existence, Claflin University has not exactly held up that reputation. While a solid 56% of Claflin University Panthers gradate from the school after spending about $128,000 in college tuition costs, after 20 years, Claflin graduates have about a -$133,900 return on investment.
7. Wheelock College – Boston, Massachusetts
Return on Investment: -$140,700
Wheelock College was originally known as Miss Wheelock’s Kindergarten Training School, founded by the aforementioned Miss Lucy Wheelock. Recently, as a result of a merger with Boston University’s School of Education, the school was renamed Wheelock College and focuses on all levels of education studies.
Due in part to the shockingly low salaries that teachers receive after graduating from college, Wheelock landed itself on this list because of its triple-digit-negative return on investment. For the huge sum of $201,000 that it costs students to attend Wheelock for four years, students usually see a -$140,700 return on investment 20 years later.
6. Voorhees College – Denmark, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$153,400
Voorhees College sits in the small town of Denmark, located basically smack in the middle of South Carolina. With just 600 students, this historically black college gets great reviews from those who come to get an education at Voorhees. Unfortunately for this school, those rave reviews do not translate to a passing grade.
An average of about 26% of students actually end up graduating from Voorhees within 4-6 years. For those who do, they pay approximately $97,000 in college tuition. In the end, that costly diploma does not seem super worthwhile. Payscale calculated that the average 20 year return on investment for Voorhees College students is about -$153,400. And now we move on to the top five (or in this case bottom five) colleges on this list.
5. Talladega College – Talladega, Alabama
Return on Investment: -$156,900
For anyone who has not heard of Talladega College, they might have heard Talladega College, or at least its famous marching band. The Talladega College Tornado Marching Band, or the Great Tornado, is well known for competing in national battles of the bands and even performing at the presidential inauguration parade in 2017.
But their ranking on this list is not something that the school likely wants to make too much noise about. For those 43% of students who make it to graduation and shell out about $88,200 in tuition costs, they might also be left with a -$156,900 return on investment after 20 years. Cue a sad song.
4. Lindsey Wilson College – Columbia, Kentucky
Return on Investment: -$160,800
Kentucky’s Lindsey Wilson College brands itself as being a school for the more athletic students. With its huge array of sports teams, complete with a pretty impressive amount of championship trophies, it’s no surprise that alumni from Lindsey Wilson include a handful of current professional soccer players and cyclists. But not every Lindsey Wilson College graduate can expect such success after school ends.
The private school has a graduation rate of about 34% and asks students to pay about $152,000 in college tuition, in addition to other school costs for a four year education. In the end, Payscale estimates that the return on investment is just -$160,800.
3. Maine College of Art – Portland, Maine
Return on Investment: -$163,600
Looking for an art education in New England? For many students, the search ends with Maine College of Art, also known as MECA. The private school has become a mecca itself for students wanting to study fine arts and studio art at a higher level.
But a school that promises to “educate artists for life,” are not exactly setting them up for a monetarily successful future, at least according to Payscale’s ranking. Students who pay about $184,000 in tuition for their art education usually find themselves with a return on investment of about -$163,600. That means former students lose about 10% of their investment every year.
2. Miles College – Fairfield, Alabama
Return on Investment: -$164,600
The runner up on Payscale’s list of schools that might not be worth the investment is Miles College, another historically black liberal arts college in Alabama. And for the Miles College Golden Bears, this might be a competition where they probably do not want to get the gold medal.
Miles College has a shockingly low graduation rate of roughly 17%. But for those few that do make it to graduation and cough up the $90,200 in college tuition and other costs, they usually see a pretty startlingly negative return on their investment. Payscale calculates that the 20 year ROI is about -$164,600. Still, that’s nothing compared to the number 1 spot on this list.
1. Mississippi Valley State University – Itta Bena, Mississippi
Return on Investment: -$174,800
Anyone who has heard of Mississippi Valley State University is probably well-acquainted with its pretty successful football team or equally successful marching band. Over the years, “The Valley” has produced its fair share of professional football players, some of which have moved on to be honored in the professional football hall of fame.
But unfortunately, MVSU has also been rewarded the top spot on this list. According to Payscale, Mississippi Valley State University students spend about $75,700 for college tuition over four years, and see a return on investment of about -$174,800. Someone please play us a sad trombone.
Honorable Mention: Campbellsville University – Campbellsville, Kentucky
Return on Investment: -$76,800
Situated right beside the manmade reservoir of Green Lake and the massive state park that surrounds it, this Baptist-affiliated university has as a great advantage its proximity to the great outdoors. The campus offers a School of Music, a School of Education, and a School of Art.
The campus even has a satellite center in the birthplace of none other than President Abraham Lincoln. Yet as appealing as all that may sound, there’s some serious financial drawbacks to consider. It is reported that while Campbellsville’s students pay roughly $143,000 for tuition, almost exactly half of that gets drained out in the average return on investment: a loss of -$76,800.
Honorable Mention: The University of Montana Western – Dillon, Montana
Return on Investment: -$71,400
Sure, having the ability to go out snowmobiling, hiking, or skiing after classes sounds like a gem of an idea. The University of Montana’s campus in Dillon is a small school, with just over 1,500 undergraduates enrolled. But there’s more than meets the eye to getting an education in this former gold rush town.
Though there is a certain benefit in having better access to your professors with such a tight student population, in the longterm, the University of Montana Western ranks as having one of the lowest returns on investment of any school in the nation. For having shelled out about $109,000 for college tuition (out of state), the 46% of students who graduate get a -$71,400 return.
Honorable Mention: University of Maine at Machias – Machias, Maine
Return on Investment: -$70,700
History seeps through every corner of the eastern Maine town of Machias, which saw the first naval battle of the American Revolution. But modern statistics have not exactly been flattering for the town that attracts eager college students to its bounds.
For starters, with a graduation rate of 29%, just about 1 in every 4 of the campus undergraduates are expected to actually complete their degree. And though U.S. News and World Report ranked the school as being among the top public comprehensive campuses for higher education in the northeast, for the $124,000 students pour into out of state tuition, they are expected to receive a negative return of -$70,700.
Honorable Mention: Emmanuel College – Franklin Springs, Georgia
Return on Investment: -$70,600
This religiously-affiliated institution of higher learning celebrates its centennial this year. Connected to the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the school offers a wide array of degrees, ranging from recreation to marketing, and everything from psychology all the way to official Christian ministry.
What’s more, for a campus its size, Emmanuel offers a plethora of different sports options for its students, which are so many in number that it’s downright impressive. Despite what it offers, the 28% of students who complete their studies at Emmanuel College often experience a lack of financial satisfaction as relates to their investment. For having paid college tuition of $112,000, about -$70,600 is the average return on investment.
Honorable Mention: Davis & Elkins College – Elkins, West Virginia
Return on Investment: -$66,000
This Presbyterian Church-affiliated liberal arts school is located in a rural setting, with the quaint surrounding town playing host to the annual Mountain State Forest Festival and the Augusta Heritage Festival for Appalachian genres of music. It’s the sort of school whose size affords greater accessibility to its academics, with one professor for every twelve students.
Getting an education amid the resplendent greenery and stone arches, however, comes with quite the price tag for Davis & Elkins College’s graduates. For having paid upwards of $160,000 to attend this private college, those who complete their studies can expect to see, over the next twenty years, a negative return to the tune of -$66,000.
Honorable Mention: University of South Carolina Aiken – Aiken, South Carolina
Return on Investment: -$66,000
Of the eight schools that comprised the University of South Carolina system, the Aiken campus is one of the fastest growing. What’s more, the university offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees, and ranks at the top of regional Southern public college polls. It can commonly be found high up on U.S. News & World Report‘s guide to Southern campuses.
However, as the old adage goes, not all that glitters is gold. Despite its solid academic reputation, the financial benefits seem to not really be there. An out of state student at the University of South Carolina in Aiken will end up paying about $130,000 for college tuition. But the return on investment is estimated to be around half of that, -$66,000.
Honorable Mention: University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma – Chickasha, Oklahoma
Return on Investment: -$65,500
This campus has a unique, if amusing, origin story: a century ago, it was the Oklahoma College for Women, and a judge sent a certain alleged societal misfit there thinking it would be a reform school! Today, the campus is filled with buildings registered as state historic sites.
Beyond its stellar academics, which routinely rank first statewide, the school is also known for annual music festivals. What it is not known for, however, is having a good return on student investment over a 20-year period. For having paid $99,700 for out of state tuition, students can expect back a paltry -$65,500.
Honorable Mention: University of Montevallo – Montevallo, Alabama
Return on Investment: -$64,100
The only liberal arts public campus in the state of Alabama bears the distinction of topping the rankings of U.S. News & World Report‘s list of public universities in Alabama offering a masters program. Brimming with pre-Civil War buildings, the scenic campus is well known for its annual Life Raft Debate, where professors must argue why their skill set is deserving of helping others survive a nuclear winter.
But behind the scenes of all that tradition and a fine education, the University of Montevallo’s degree in the long-term could have some drawbacks to it. An out of state student is expected to pay around $143,000 in college tuition, yet the average graduate will make back a negative return of -$64,100.
Honorable Mention: Florida Memorial University – Miami Gardens, Florida
Return on Investment: -$64,000
This historically black college has been around since the late 19th century, and has moved locations around the Sunshine State until receiving its current campus in 1968. A private school, it was founded with the support of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and continues to be associated with the Baptist Church.
In addition to its undergraduate and graduate programs, Florida Memorial also gives back to the community surrounding it in Miami Gardens, offering pre-college courses to hundreds of teenagers. Over the decades following graduation, meanwhile, an out of state tuition of $109,000 will drain funds, with -$64,000 expected in returns.
Honorable Mention: The Baptist College of Florida – Graceville, Florida
Return on Investment: -$63,400
If it’s a small town setting imbued with traditional Southern graciousness you’re looking for as the environment for your college experience, then the City of Graceville, right on the Alabama-Florida border, may be the right fit. Graceville’s Baptist College of Florida is renowned both for its program training Baptist ministers, as well as its school of music, among other degrees.
Despite boasting greater access to faculty, it would appear that statistically, getting a higher education at the Baptist College of Florida is not without its drawbacks. While its students are expected to shell out $68,500 in tuition, the returns are grim; at -$63,400, that’s just about all they’d invested to begin with!
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