PROVO — Brigham Young University offers the highest return on educational investment in Utah and is among the top 100 schools in the nation, according to PayScale's 2013 Return on Investment Rankings for U.S. higher education.
BYU moved to No. 84 on the list, up from No. 87 in 2012. Weber State University, Utah State University and the University of Utah were also upwardly mobile — WSU rose from 339th to 224th, USU from 307th to 225th and the U. from 313th to 251st.
Westminster College lost ground in the rankings this year, falling from No. 754 to No. 801.
Southern Utah University, which came in at No. 1,379, was included in the return on investment list for the first time this year. Brad Cook, provost for the Cedar City-based university, said he expects that ranking will improve as new programs that focus on job skills and capstone projects such as academic research and internships (or something equivalent) go into effect at SUU.
"I think that will only get better as we add these very intentional programs," Cook said. "We're going to make sure that we're climbing that rank, that we're getting higher."
The report ranked more than 1,500 schools across the nation, but did not include some Utah institutions, such as Utah Valley University or Salt Lake Community College, because sufficient data on these schools was not available, Katie Bardaro, PayScale's lead economist, said.
The data for PayScale's rankings came directly from employed graduates who filled out an online survey in 2012 and the first quarter of 2013, and from figures provided by the Department of Education. PayScale estimated the cost of attending each university, figuring in tuition, room and board, and the length of time to graduation, and compared those investments to the median salary earnings of graduates to determine the returns on a bachelor's degree. Advanced degrees, which PayScale notes can account for as many as half of the graduates from Ivy League and liberal arts schools, are not included in the ranking.
Similar factors likely account for Westminster's low ranking. Many of the institutions that ranked above Westminster College are engineering or research institutions, which liberal arts schools such as Westminster don't try to compete with, Krista DeAngelis, associate director of communications at Wesminster, said.
"Westminster's primary purpose is to prepare students to lead lives of learning, accomplishment and service — which is hard to quantify in an ROI ranking," she said in an email. "Very few of the top schools listed in this study would be institutions we would compare ourselves to."
Schools that rank well on the list typically have two things in common, Bardaro said. One is the presence of popular STEM programs, those in science, technology, engineering and math. The other is strong alumni associations that assist with job placement.
"The schools that don't rank well suffer from two things — a high cost of education and a large presence of majors with limited earnings potential, such as social work, criminal justice and education," Bardaro said in an email.
The popularity of career-ready STEM programs at Weber State could explain why the Ogden university has climbed PayScale's rankings rapidly over the last several years, said Michael Vaughan, WSU's provost. Since 2011, the Ogden school has jumped from No. 560 to No. 224.
Additionally, he said, WSU focuses on keeping costs down and on successful post-graduation placement.