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How to measure the ROI of your education as an international student

interstride logo by Interstride
November 14, 2023

International students have a big decision to make when choosing the school with the best value for their undergraduate education. Higher education in the US is more expensive than it is in many other countries. It takes approximately four years to earn a bachelor’s degree and can cost over $100,000.

Before choosing a US college or university, students should think about the return on investment (ROI) of their education. ROI is the amount of money you make on your investment (i.e. your degree) versus how much the investment cost initially (i.e. college costs). On average, graduates in the US who have a bachelor’s degree see a 38% return on investment from their education after 20 years of working. A good ROI on your education means you earn a lot more money than you invested in your degree. In other words, your college degree has a high profit.

Calculating the ROI of your US education 

One way to estimate ROI is to subtract the total cost of your education including tuition, fees, and books from how much you can potentially earn with your degree over a certain period of time. This can be a helpful tool, but keep in mind it is only an estimate, and earning potential is not guaranteed.

Here’s an example ROI calculation over 20 years:

Tuition, fees, and other education-related expenses$36,000 per year
Multiply total times 4 for the total cost of your bachelor’s degree:$144,000
Average annual salary for your desired job with a degree:$132,930 for software engineers
Multiply annual average earnings by 20:$2,658,600
Subtract the total cost of your degree from your potential earnings over 20 years:$2,514,600

With a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, this hypothetical student could earn over $2.5 million in profit from their investment in their higher education over 20 years! Note that this example is based on US salaries with the assumption that the student remains in the US for work after graduation.

Being able to estimate your ROI using a mathematical calculation is especially important if you plan to take out student loans because you will be paying interest on top of the cost of your education. Review your loan details to estimate how much interest you will pay and add that to your total education-related expenses. This will help ensure that you get a positive ROI on your degree even with student loan interest.

Important factors that impact ROI

There are multiple factors that affect the financial ROI of your US education as an international student. Two students from the same school may yield vastly different ROIs after graduation depending on the various choices they make in their academic and professional journeys. Factors that can impact ROI include:

  • The major you choose in college – Certain majors have a much higher ROI than others. The most cost-efficient majors for undergraduate study are computer and information science and business finance.
  • The salary expectations for your desired job – Some jobs that require a degree earn much more than others. To build accurate expectations of how much you can earn after graduation, research the annual salary of your desired job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a great resource with recent statistics on most jobs in the US.
  • The demand for your desired job – Research the demand for new workers in your chosen field. The BLS has a database that includes the ten-year projections for job demand for most occupations. This is especially valuable to students like you who will be graduating and entering the job market in the next five years or so.
  • The cost of living in your area – The cost of living varies significantly across the US. For example, the average cost of living in New York City (NYC) is 128% higher than the national average for the US, but the cost of living in South Bend, Indiana is 13.5% below the national average. While these differences will affect your overall costs during college, they will become an even more important factor if you plan to stay in the US for work. A $75,000 entry-level salary will go a lot further in South Bend, Indiana than it will in NYC.

The value of your American degree

Another factor that affects ROI for international students is your goals for after graduation. If your goal is to remain in the US for work after graduation, you should research how many workers in the industry are on employer-sponsored visas. Industries that already employ a lot of international talent, such as computer science and engineering fields, may be more likely to sponsor you. These workplaces may also be more welcoming of people from an international background.

If your goal is to return to your home country or work in other countries outside the US after graduation, you should consider how your degree and US experience may translate to job opportunities abroad. You must weigh whether an expensive degree from the US will be worth the income you will make in another country. Ask yourself:

  • What industries in other countries are in demand and require a bachelor’s degree?
  • Will a US degree be accepted in my home country and in other countries?
  • What will my earning potential be?
  • Is this degree versatile and valuable no matter which country I end up working in?

Beyond financial ROI

While we know earning potential is important, ROI for higher education is not as simple as a mathematical calculation. According to a 2022 report from Interstride, 84% of international students would recommend studying in the US to their friends, but only 49% felt that from a career perspective, the value of a US education justifies the cost.

This research highlights that there are important factors beyond financial gain that international students are thinking about when considering the value and ROI of a US undergraduate degree. The non-financial benefits of a US education that contribute to the overall value of your degree include:

  • Increased social capital
  • Transformative learning opportunities
  • Exposure to new ideas and perspectives
  • Access to new career paths


ROI for international students studying in the US is the value of your degree. ROI can be estimated by calculating your degree-based earnings over a certain time period and comparing that to the total cost of your education.

However, remember that ROI is more complicated than a mathematical calculation. ROI for higher education includes various financial factors such as future job outlook and sponsorship opportunities in the field for international graduates and non-financial factors such as social capital and exposure to new ideas. Students should think about ROI whether they plan to stay in the US after graduation or return to their home country. It may also be valuable to compare your earning potential in the US vs another country.