College degrees with the worst ROI

Can’t decide on what to major in? These degrees offer some of the worst ROIs around. (iStock)

A bachelor’s degree earns you nearly $500 more per week than a high school degree, and, according to the Social Security Administration, you’ll earn a whopping $180,000 to $260,00 more across your lifetime.

But not all degrees are created equally. In fact, if you’re not careful, that bachelor’s may not give you much financial advantage all.

Want to make sure your degree gives you the leg up you’re looking for? Knowing your program’s ROI is critical.

What’s the ROI of a college degree?

Your ROI is your return on investment — the amount you made thanks to your degree vs. the costs you incurred to get it.

To calculate the potential ROI of a college degree you’re considering, you’ll need to know how much the program costs (in full, including room, board, etc.), what the projected earnings are for that career path and the exact program/school, and how much in loans/debt, if any, you’ll need to cover your costs. The interest you’ll pay will factor in, too.


Here’s a formula you can follow once you have this data on hand:

Total Career Earnings / Total Spent on the Degree * 100 = ROI

A good way to compare degree programs is to calculate the potential 10-year ROI of each program. To see how earnings measure up between programs you’re considering, see the Department of Education’s College Scorecard website.

What’s a good ROI for college?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for what makes a good ROI — that really depends on what you’re looking for lifestyle-wise.

In a general sense, you want a degree that offers:

  • Solid job prospects.
  • Good earning potential.
  • Long-term stability.

You want to ensure you’ll make enough to not just pay off your education costs, but also to live comfortably and free from debt fairly quickly after graduation.

What degrees have the worst ROI?

The true ROI of a degree depends on the college you choose to attend, the amount of aid you get, the job market you enter, and many other factors. Generally, though, the below degree programs are some of the worst investments you can make. 



It’s no secret that teachers aren’t paid well. But considering the costs of their education and future projections for the industry, the picture gets even bleaker. Let’s look at Alabama A&M as a good example. A student attending the public college’s teacher education program will pay about $88,000 for four years of schooling. They’ll also come out of it with about $33,000 in average federal debt. But upon graduation, they’ll make $25,400. To make matters worse, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects virtually no employment growth for primary and secondary school educators over the next 10 years.


Employment opportunities for radio and TV professionals, as well as reporters and correspondents, are on their way down. The BLS projects a 7.3 percent decline in radio/TV announcer jobs, and a 12.1 percent dip in reporting gigs by 2028. What’s more? These media professionals often pay a pretty penny for their degrees. Journalism and media students at Auburn University leave school with a $128K bill in tow and around $20,000 in federal loans. Average earnings for these grads is $35,000.


Photography degrees don’t come cheap. For a bachelor’s degree in photography from the University of Arizona, you’d pay upwards of $120,000 — even as a state resident — and come away with more than $21,000 in average federal debt. Sadly, grads make just $27,100 per year, and, according to the BLS, their job opportunities are on the decline. Projections show photography employment down by over 6 percent by 2028.

Criminal justice

Criminal justice jobs are declining almost across the board, and with average earnings just over $44,000, there’s not much to celebrate in this career path. Still, a degree in criminal justice can rack up some serious debt. Even a program at a junior school like Portland Community College will le

ave you with around a $40,000 bill (more if you don’t live with mom and dad) and about $21,000 in federal student loans. Grads from the program make an average of just over $31,000.


Opportunities in the publishing industry are waning, with jobs in newspapers, books, and periodicals declining nearly 3 percent annually. Though writers and editors command fairly solid salaries (in the high $50s/low $60s), their degrees can come with significant costs. Graduates from the University of Rhode Island end up paying around $120,000 for four years at the campus. They also average about $21,000 just in federal debt and make just $22,000 upon graduation. At private universities like Oberlin, students pay even more. The average cost for four years at the school is upwards of $220,000.

The moral of the story here? Do your research — and choose your degree carefully. With college costs constantly on the rise, picking the right program is critical to building long-term financial wealth.