Higher Education

Many Oklahoma college degree programs not worth the money

January 5, 2023

Ray Carter

A new report shows more than one in five degree programs offered by Oklahoma colleges are not worth students’ time and tuition because those degrees fail to produce income gains that offset the cost.

The report also shows the median return on investment (ROI) for degrees conferred by Oklahoma colleges is substantially less than what students in neighboring Texas and Kansas enjoy, indicating that universities and colleges in those states are producing more graduates in fields that command higher salaries than what occurs in Oklahoma.

The report, “Ranking the 50 State Public University Systems on Prices & Outcomes,” by Preston Cooper, a research fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), ranks the 50 U.S. state public university systems by median ROI, which the report defines as the amount a student can expect to gain financially from each individual degree.

ROI compares the increase in lifetime income attributable to the degree to the costs, including tuition and forgone earnings.

Oklahoma’s median return on investment for undergraduate programs was $133,980. That significantly trailed Texas, which had a median ROI of $159,475, and Kansas, which had a median ROI of $180,770.

Furthermore, the report showed that 23.9 percent of undergraduate programs at Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities produce a negative return on investment.

South Dakota’s public colleges and universities had the highest median ROI at $217,000, followed by Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Pennsylvania.

“High-ROI states commonly have a well-developed technical college system,” Cooper wrote. “A preponderance of career-oriented majors at four-year schools also plays a role.”

He noted that South Dakota students “enjoy a variety of high-quality technical schools such as Lake Area Technical College, which offers several high-value associate degrees in fields such as vehicle maintenance and repair (ROI: $333,950) and agricultural business and management (ROI: $276,278). Another specialized public institution is the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which offers a four-year degree in mechanical engineering worth $618,994.”

The more traditional four-year schools in South Dakota also offer “plenty of high-value degrees in fields such as nursing, engineering, and biological sciences,” Cooper wrote.

The report also includes a ranking of the nation’s “most valuable programs,” which are degree programs that provide “excellent ROI and graduate enough students to meaningfully impact economic mobility in their states.”

No Oklahoma program made the top-100 list.

However, the state of Texas had eight of the nation’s 100 most valuable degree programs, while two other states that border Oklahoma—Colorado and Missouri—had two programs and one program, respectively, that made the list. The University of Texas at Arlington’s degree program in nursing was ranked the nation’s most valuable program, producing an ROI of $743,464 for students and creating state value of more than $3.9 billion.

Twenty-three programs on the “most valuable degree” list are in registered nursing, followed by 18 in business fields and 18 in computer science.

The most valuable program in Oklahoma is the University of Oklahoma’s bachelor’s degree program in nursing, which produces a return on investment of $466,312 for students and creates value of $305.4 million for the state.

However, that significantly trailed the top programs in several bordering states when comparing either ROI, state value, or both metrics.

The University of Texas at Arlington’s nursing degree programs produces an ROI of $743,464 for students and creates $3.9 billion in value for the state.

Kansas State University’s bachelor’s degree program in mechanical engineering produces an ROI of $840,474.

The University of Missouri’s bachelor’s degree program in business/commerce produces $505.9 million in state value.

The University of Colorado’s bachelor’s degree program in business administration produces an ROI of $656,795 and $623.9 million in state value.

The University of New Mexico’s bachelor’s degree program in nursing produces an ROI of $489,980.

Cooper noted that “the most critical driver of ROI is the labor market value of the education being produced. Lower tuition is nice to have, but it isn’t worth much if the degree being financed does not help the student attain higher earnings.”