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If it's return on investment you're looking for, Colorado School of Mines might be a better bet than Harvard.

PayScale's annual College Education ROI Rankings countered the US News and World Report's Best Colleges ranking, favoring lesser known schools over more prestigious ones. Cornell University and Yale University ranked 47th and 48th respectively, while Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology secured top ten spots.

With students and parents increasingly worried about the steep cost of higher education, which has soared in the past decade, return on investment has become a controversial way to measure the worth of a college degree.

The ROI Ranking rates colleges based on the 20-year net ROI — the total income a graduate makes in 20 years, not including the cost of college and what they would have made working instead of going to college. It also does not include financial aid, an important factor for many schools which charge expensive tuition but provide significant aid to students. Users can choose to see rankings which take financial aid into account.

Penn rose from 30th to 26th this year, not taking into account financial aid. If the user does include financial aid, Penn rose from 30th to 15th.

Most of the top schools focus on math, science and engineering. Harvey Mudd College, a liberal arts college of science, math and engineering ranked first.

Thyra Briggs , the vice president for admission and financial aid at Harvey Mudd, said in an email that the school ranked highly partially because it trains students for STEM fields, which are often high-paying. 

Some educational experts are skeptical of using ROI to evaluate colleges. "If you look closely, this is really a survey promoted by business leaders and people who are not students," said assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nick Hillman, who studies finance in higher education. "This survey has many methodological flaws and people in the academic community do not really trust it."

Hillman believes ROI rankings may actually be "counterproductive" because they do not accurately reflect the type of education a student might receive at different colleges.

He points out that it is the variation around the average ROI that matters more, a fact that is not demonstrated in the data. As an example, he said the average ROI for a Penn English major likely has much higher variation than the average ROI for a Pennsylvania State University English major.

Dean of Admissions Eric Furda also cautions against using ROI as the sole measure of a college. Instead, he focuses on the responsibility of schools to educate families on the realities of higher education. "You're not just going to college to figure out what that first job is, but it does matter," he said. 

"A college education is still one of the best bets out there when you're talking about lifetime earnings," he added.

He also pointed out that the ranking failed to adjust for population size. Harvey Mudd College admitted only a little over 600 students last year. 

Carrie Johnson, the associate director of marketing and media relations at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that ROI should be only one component of college evaluations. "It is good to have a sense of where students are receiving jobs after graduation, but, in general, you really have to look at the curriculum," she said.

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