Is college worth it? Despite spiraling tuition costs and mounting student loan debt, most people say yes. Eighty-five percent of people with student debt surveyed by Credit Karma said their education was a good investment. Research backs them up. A bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million over a lifetime, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, and those with an undergraduate degree earn 74% more than people with just a high school diploma.
Yet colleges and universities aren’t created equal, as various “best colleges” lists constantly remind us. By now, there’s ample data to suggest attending Stanford, MIT, or Harvard gives you a leg up compared to graduates of less elite institutions. But is the opposite also true? Are some schools so bad that students would be better off if they didn’t attend at all? Maybe, but it’s harder to make that call than you might expect.
Identifying the worst colleges in the United States “represent[s] a more difficult analytic challenge” than developing a list of the best schools, education expert Ben Miller explained in a 2014 article in Washington Monthly. Elite schools that regularly top “best colleges” lists tend to be strong across the board: They have high graduation rates, enroll the students with the best GPAs and test scores, offer small classes, have big endowments that allow them to provide generous financial aid, and reliably funnel students to high-paying or impressive jobs. Schools on the lower end are more of a mixed bag. They could be cheap but have students who struggle to find decent jobs after graduation or cost a lot but graduate a high percentage of students in four years.