The ROI of a College Degree: What Adult Learners Need To Know

By Dennis Mulato

College graduates earn one million dollars more in their lifetimes than people without a college degree, according to U.S. News & World Report. College graduates also experience much lower unemployment rates than the general population.

As an adult learner, you're probably anxious to start seeing financial gains in your own life. How can you predict when you will start earning a return on your educational investment?

Your financial outlook is determined by a number of factors, including the overall cost of your college tuition, the salary expectations related to your chosen profession, and other opportunity costs like moving expenses and lost wages.

Let's take a closer look at each element of the equation:

The Cost of Your College Degree

The cost of your tuition often depends on which school you attend. Some schools offer greater value than others. A more expensive school does not always correlate with a higher-quality education.

The College Board reports that the average cost of tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit, four-year university is $31,231, whereas public four-year schools cost about $9,139. However, as an enrolled student, you may not pay the full "sticker price"if you qualify for grants and scholarships.

So how does your school measure up in terms of ROI? ranks hundreds of colleges and universities according to their total costs and alumni earnings. For each school, also calculates a 20-year return on investment.

Engineering schools top the list, and students who majored in engineering, computer science, and math or who pursued careers in finance and business saw the greatest financial returns.

Your Occupational Outlook

The college degree you earn undoubtedly makes a difference. estimates the number of years needed to repay an educational investment for different occupations.

For example, public relations specialists need 12.1 years to pay off the cost of their degrees, teachers need 18.5 years, and accountants need 9.7 years. The site also provides additional information such as the total cost for each degree type and average monthly student loan payments.

Choosing an in-demand career can help you achieve your financial goals faster. If you are still considering what occupation to pursue, take a look at O*NET onLine, a comprehensive website that allows you to search different career and industry outlooks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is another great resource.

Your Opportunity Costs

The cost of college goes beyond tuition. If you attend a full-time, on-campus program, you might need to move to a new location or forfeit your current salary in order to attend classes during the day.

Fortunately, adult learners have more options than ever, with many flexible part-time and online programs available at a range of universities. These options may allow you to remain employed while you attend school. You can also avoid relocation expenses and have more time for other commitments in your life.

With lower opportunity costs, you can start earning a return on your investment more quickly. However, when considering part-time or online educational opportunities, do your research to ensure you find a reputable program that fits your goals.

Bringing It All Together

All these factors are important to consider, but weighing each component can still be confusing at times. If you're looking to put the ROI of a college degree in simple, concrete terms, consider the advice Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of, shared in Forbes.

"As long as student loan debt at graduation is less than your annual starting salary, you'll be able to repay your student loans in 10 years or less,"Kantrowitz says. If your debt exceeds your annual income, you may have difficulty paying your loans each month, and you may have to extend your payment plan.

This quick comparison can help you get a general idea of what your student loan repayment timeline may look like.

Putting It in Perspective

Every adult learner has a unique blend of goals, values, and personal commitments. Depending on your situation, your finances might not always be your primary concern. For example, your quality of life, family time, or job satisfaction may matter to you more than how quickly you can pay off your student loans—and that's okay, too. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for measuring the long-term value of a college degree.

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