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For the best ROI, get your computer science degree at a state school

Based on the expected annual return, computer science degrees from state universities pay off better than those from private schools

Exterior picture of the University of VirginiaImage credit: flickr/JoshBerglund19 (license)
University of Virginia CS grads get the highest annual ROI

If you're a high school student - or the parent of one - thinking about what to study in college, computer science is obviously a solid choice. Demand for software developers continues to go up, as do their salaries, with little sign of either trend changing anytime soon. But what college's CS degree will give you get the biggest bang for your tuition buck? Based on new data from PayScale, you should apply to your state university.

PayScale recently released its 2014 college ROI report. They gathered data on the costs of hundreds of colleges and universities, and the earnings of their alumni. Using these data, for each school, PayScale calculated the 20-year net ROI, that is the total amount a graduate can expect to earn over the next 20 years above what he or she would otherwise earn without a college degree, minus the cost of the education. PayScale also calculates an annual ROI over the next 20 years, so you can compare the return on your college investment as you would stocks or other ways to invest your money.

The PayScale data also breaks things down by major. The Atlantic published a nice summary of the findings and got ahold of the raw data to dig in a little more. They found that, when looking at the 20-year ROI against the net cost of college (that is the cost taking into account financial aid), 9 of the top 10 highest ROI majors were computer science, with Stanford computer science grads leading the way ($1.7 million net ROI over 20 years). The only non-CS degree to crack the top 10 was an economics degree from Stanford ($1.3 million). The rest of the top 10 included other schools you'd probably expect: MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon. So, as we already knew, computer science is a major that can really pay off, particularly if you go to a big name private school.

However, since not everybody can get into Stanford, Harvard or MIT (or afford it, even with financial aid), I wanted to look at it a different way. I used the query tool on the PayScale site to look at the which school's computer science graduates got the best return on their investment, based on annual ROI.

Here are the top 10 computer science programs based on annual ROI:

A chart listing the top 10 college computer science programs based on annual return on investmentImage credit: PayScale
The top 10 computer science programs, based on annual net ROI

We see that the annual ROI on CS degrees from public universities (for in-state students) dominate the annual return from private schools. 8 of the top 10 computer science programs, ranked by annual ROI, are for state schools (in-state students) with the University of Virginia topping the list, with a 22% annual ROI; only two private schools, Harvard (#5, 17.7%) and Stanford (#9, 17.4%), make the top 10. In fact, if you look at the top 25 computer science programs based on annual ROI, 20 are (in-state) state school programs; Columbia University (#18, 16.4%), Park University (#19, 15.9%) and MIT (#25, 15.5%) join Harvard and Stanford as the only private schools in the top 25.

The message? If you're just thinking of college as a financial investment, studying computer science at one of your state's public universities is the way to go. Of course, that's purely based on raw financial numbers and it doesn't take into account other important things that can affect one's college experience, like the location, the choice of extracurricular activities and the quality of the dining hall food. You (or your child) will have to do that math yourselves.

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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