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.
“Creating a list of the worst colleges … requires making judgments about the importance of different problems in higher education,” Miller wrote. “For example, a worst colleges list has to decide whether a high-student-debt college with a so-so graduation rate should be ranked higher or lower than a cheaper option with minimal debt but even fewer completers.”
With all that in mind, The Washington Monthly took a stab at identifying the worst colleges in the United States. Depending on which factors were given more weight, different schools sank to the bottom. When measures of student debt were given more weight, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fared the worst, but when graduation rate was weighted more heavily, the list was dominated by private, for-profit schools.
Others have used different methods to alert students to poorly performing schools. Priceonomics has ranked the best and worst schools for low-income students. Meanwhile, Payscale ranks schools based on the expected 20-year return on investment, or how much additional money a graduate of the school can expect to earn over what they’d make as a high school graduate. But it relies on self-reported salary data from relatively small numbers of graduates who chose to share their information with the website. It also excludes alumni who went on to earn advanced degrees, which can skew the numbers for some schools.
Different ways of looking at data and different student goals mean that what may be a terrible school for one student is a good option for another. Even those institutions that perform poorly on traditional college rankings may be graduating well-educated students who go on to earn a decent living (especially when you consider that earning a bachelor’s degree is still one of the best ways to boost your lifetime earnings). Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that some schools appear to have worse outcomes for students, at least on paper. Here are five schools where you might want to think twice before enrolling.
1. DeVry University
Attending college is supposed to improve your financial prospects, not make them worse. But former students at for-profit colleges were actually less likely to have a job after they attended school than before they enrolled. When they did find work, their earnings were lower than before they matriculated, according to a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
While the paper took all for-profit colleges to task, one of the worst schools in this category may be DeVry University. The school, which has its main campus in Illinois, was the 13th-worst college in the country by Washington Monthly. It did even worse on the lists where graduation rates and student borrowing rates were given more weight. Twenty-nine percent of students who enroll eventually graduate. Those who do make it to the finish line leave school with an average of $43,000 in debt, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Plus, the Federal Trade Commission has sued the school for misleading students about their chances of finding a job in their field after graduation.
2. Columbia College Hollywood
The New England Institute of Art, the worst college on Washington Monthly’s 2014 list, recently went out of business. That means the Colombia College Hollywood, a private for-profit school in Los Angeles, now has the dubious honor of being worst college in the U.S., based on an equal weighting of net price, average student debt, loan default rate, and graduation rate. The annual cost of attendance is about $10,000 more than the national average and the film school’s graduation rate is 35%, according to the College Scorecard. The typical graduate leaves with $31,000 in debt.
3. University of Montevallo
The University of Montevallo, a four-year public school in Alabama, came in dead last on Payscale’s 2016 College ROI report. With financial aid, out-of-state students had a 20-year return of -$89,000 on a degree that cost $123,000. In-state students had a return of -$52,000 on a degree that cost $86,100. In other words, graduates of this school would have earned more money by not attending college at all, at least according to Payscale’s calculation.
However, when looking at the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the University of Montevallo is on par with national averages on every measure from tuition to graduation rate to salary after graduating. And the school has defended its low ranking in the past, arguing that many of its students go on to earn graduate degrees and thus aren’t included in the data.
4. Shaw University
Shaw University, a private HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina, had the second-worst ROI according to Payscale. Alumni had a 20-year return of -$80,000 and the total four-year cost of attendance was $111,000. The school also fared poorly in the Washington Monthly rankings of the worst colleges.
The school’s average cost is $18,849, according to the College Scorecard, which is just a little above average. But the graduation rate of 28% and average post-college salary of $27,400 are both below average. Students graduate with almost $40,000 in debt, but only 31% of them are actually paying back their loans. Fewer than half of graduates earned more than someone who just had a high school diploma.
5. Culinary school
Culinary school is an expensive investment. Yet having completed a program in the culinary arts usually results in only small increases in salary compared to chefs, sous chefs, and pastry chefs who only have a high school diploma, according to a report by Eater.
Not only is the financial return on culinary arts programs questionable, but many culinary schools are financially troubled and under increased scrutiny by regulators. Le Cordon Bleu, one of the biggest names in culinary education, stopped enrolling new students at all its campuses early in 2016, saying new regulations on career colleges made it impossible to continue doing business. Several similar institutions are on the U.S. Department of Education’s heightened cash monitoring list, which tracks schools that have financial or federal compliance issues, including the New England Institute of Culinary Arts in Vermont, San Diego Culinary Institute, and the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder and Austin.