The 9 Worst Colleges in the U.S.
What Makes a University the Worst?
What makes a college bad? The answer may vary depending on who you ask, and the list below is not meant to be authoritative—although I am sure it will be controversial to some.
The universities on this list were chosen according to whether they stood out regarding my personally chosen criteria, including:
- ROI (return on investment over 20 years)
- Graduation rate (within 6 years)
- Average student debt
- Median starting income
- Annual cost (including tuition, fees, room, and board)
- CollegeFactual overall ranking
For this list, I have considered only universities that are regionally accredited, located in the United States, and for which relevant data is available. I have excluded community colleges, military academies, and for-profit institutions such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix.
My main sources of information are U.S. News & World Report, PayScale, CollegeFactual, and RateMyProfessors. I have indicated below which data comes from which source. In all cases, I have used the most recent available data.
For the sake of equity, I have listed the following colleges in alphabetical order.
The 9 Worst Colleges in America
- Fayetteville State University
- Florida Memorial University
- Grambling State University
- Lindsey Wilson College
- Morris College
- University of the District of Columbia
- University of Montevallo
- University of South Carolina, Aiken
- Shaw University
1. Fayetteville State University
Fayetteville State University is situated in urban Fayetteville, North Carolina. Founded in 1867, this public institution has an undergraduate enrollment of 5,393, and its gender balance is 60% women to 40% men. Reviewing the school, one student wrote: "The staff and the faculty are uncaring.... Look up the crime rate; it's [in] the worst area in Fayetteville."
- ROI: $29,500
- Graduation rate: 33%
- Average student debt: $21,304
- Median starting income: $38,000
- Annual cost: $13,151 (in-state); $24,759 (out-of-state)
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1433 (out of 1779)
2. Florida Memorial University
Founded in 1879, Florida Memorial University is located in urban Miami, Florida. This private school has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,669, of which 63% are women and 37% are men. One student reviewer wrote: "The teachers are very disrespectful and unfair to the students and [they are] setting the students up for failure. I would not recommend [that] anyone come here."
- ROI: -$64,000
- Graduation rate: 38%
- Average student debt: $30,160
- Median starting income: $36,600
- Annual cost: $22,270
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1553 (out of 1779)
3. Grambling State University
Located in rural Grambling, Louisiana, Grambling State University is a public institution that was founded in 1901. Its undergraduate enrollment is 4,076, of which 58% are women and 42% are men. Reviewing the school, one student wrote: "This campus is a complete joke.... Some teachers are helpful; however, this campus is not safe at all. Too many people with guns and drugs. Way too many people hanging out on campus that aren't enrolled here."
- ROI: $61,100
- Graduation rate: 35%
- Average student debt: $25,732
- Median starting income: $43,800
- Annual cost: $17,489
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1614 (out of 1779)
4. Lindsey Wilson College
Founded in 1903 and located in Columbia, Kentucky, Lindsey Wilson College is a private institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its undergraduate enrollment is 2,585, and the gender balance is 61% women to 39% men. One student describes the school this way: "If you're from rural Kentucky, this is the school for you. Anybody [from] outside the Bible Belt will find it hard to adapt."
- ROI: -$160,800
- Graduation rate: 31%
- Average student debt: $21,000
- Median starting income: $38,500
- Annual cost: $34,235
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1571 (out of 1779)
5. Morris College
Situated in rural Sumter, South Carolina, Morris College is a private institution affiliated with the Baptist Church. It was founded in 1908, and it has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,200, of which 55% are women and 45% are men. From a student review: "They are very far behind in technology and other things that a lot of [other] schools have upgraded to. It has a feel of being stuck in the 1970s."
- ROI: -$106,800
- Graduation rate: 29%
- Average student debt: $26,000
- Median starting income: $32,300
- Annual cost: $19,919
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1585 (out of 1779)
6. University of the District of Columbia
The University of the District of Columbia is located in urban Washington, DC. Founded in 1976, this public institution has an undergraduate enrollment of 3,859 with a gender balance of 57% women to 43% men. One student reviewer summed it up this way: "Unless you have no other choice, go somewhere else."
- ROI: [data not available]
- Graduation rate: 32%
- Average student debt: $22,120
- Median starting income: $51,300
- Annual cost: $23,071 (in-state); $29,599 (out-of-state)
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1564 (out of 1779)
7. University of Montevallo
Founded in 1896, University of Montevallo is located in rural Montevallo, Alabama. It is a public university with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,346, of which 67% are women and 33% are men. Reviewing the school, one student wrote: "Their quote 'You Belong at Montevallo' is a joke. Most people I talk to feel super isolated and leave on the weekends."
- ROI: -$20,200
- Graduation rate: 47%
- Average student debt: $25,484
- Median starting income: $38,300
- Annual cost: $22,090 (in-state); $35,110 (out-of-state)
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1007 (out of 1779)
8. University of South Carolina, Aiken
Founded in 1961, the University of South Carolina at Aiken is located in suburban Aiken, South Carolina. This public institution has an undergraduate enrollment of 3,354; the gender balance is 64% women to 36% men. One student reviewer wrote: "Very boring here—there's nothing to do on campus or in the Aiken area. It's like an old retirement town.... The people are standoffish. It's everybody for themselves here. I hate it!"
- ROI: -$28,100
- Graduation rate: 41%
- Average student debt: $24,692
- Median starting income: $41,100
- Annual cost: $18,526 (in-state); $28,984 (out-of-state)
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1178 (out of 1779)
9. Shaw University
Founded in 1865, Shaw University is a private institution located in urban Raleigh, North Carolina. It has an undergraduate enrollment of 1,546 with a gender balance of 58% women to 42% men. One student reviewer wrote: "Shaw University is a terrible institution. #transfer."
- ROI: -$93,600
- Graduation rate: 23%
- Average student debt: $28,144
- Median starting income: $36,900
- Annual cost: $24,638
- CollegeFactual ranking: #1774 (out of 1779)
Do you think a college education is worth the financial sacrifice?
Did you go to college?
A Closer Look at the Measures
There are a near infinite number of ways to compare colleges, so you might wonder why I chose to pay close attention to the small handful of measures I did. Let's take a look at each one in turn.
ROI: Return on Investment
College is an investment in the future. The assumption is that by spending a large amount of money and time to earn a college degree, graduates will be able to get significantly better jobs and earn much more money over the course of their careers, relative to what they would have been able to do with only a high school degree.
ROI, or return on investment, is a way to measure the value of a college degree. PayScale defines ROI as the total earnings, minus the cost of the degree, minus the earnings a similar person with only a high school education would have made over the same period of time.
It's probably a safe assumption that everyone who enrolls in college hopes to one day graduate with a degree in hand. That's why it's important to look at a school's graduation rate (the numbers cited in this article refer to graduation within six years of matriculation).
If you look at a school that has a graduation rate of 22%, for example, that means that 78% of students don't graduate within six years! That's a huge exodus of students over the years. Granted, we don't always know why all of those students might have left; it's possible that some took seven or eight years to finish, or it's possible that some transferred to (and graduated from) another school. Often, however, a low graduation rate is indicative of unhappy students, poor support systems at the college, fees that are too high, or some combination thereof.
Average Student Debt
Students graduating with heavy student debt has become an enormous problem in this country. It can be very difficult for newly minted college grads to get started in life if they are weighed down by crushing student loan payments every month. Unless they happen to be in high-paying professions, it may feel like it will take forever to pay off the debt, and some may even question if taking on the loans in order to go to school was even worth it.
In general, it's best to try to minimize debt, but of course students need to weigh the future earnings that are possible with the degree. This is where ROI can be an important measure to consider.
Median Starting Income
We all know that incomes vary greatly from profession to profession, and also from one part of the country to the next, so looking at median starting income needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But you can still look at this number as a very general indicator of the salary potential of a degree from a particular school.
College isn't cheap—but there's enormous variation in costs from one institution to the next. Private schools are generally more expensive than public schools, and within the latter category, out-of-state tuition is almost always more expensive than in-state tuition (rarely, out-of-state and in-state fees are the same).
CollegeFactual produces a nationwide ranking of nearly 1,800 schools. (Arguably, U.S. News & World Report's rankings are more famous—but they divide up the schools into categories to produce separate rankings for national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional colleges, etc.).
On the other hand, if we are interested in comparing all U.S. schools in one large group, we can look to CollegeFactual, which generates its rankings by looking at 11 different factors that are encompassed within these four areas: student body caliber, educational resources, degree completion, and post-graduation earnings.
- CollegeFactual - I used this source for average student debt and overall rankings.
- PayScale - I referred to this source for 20-year net ROI and median starting income.
- RateMyProfessors - I cited this source for student reviews.
- U.S. News & World Report - I used this source for graduation rates, costs (tuition, fees, room, and board), and general information (location, founding year, public vs. private status, undergraduate enrollment, and gender balance).
(All sources accessed Jan. 15, 2019.)
Adams, Susan. "The 25 Colleges With the Worst Return on Investment." Forbes. Nov. 12, 2013. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Berman, Dan. "30 Colleges for Worst ROI: 2016." ThinkAdvisor. May 5, 2016. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Coplan, Jill Hamburg. "Colleges That Offer the Best—and Worst—Bang for the Buck." Fortune. April 7, 2016. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Giang, Vivian. "13 Colleges That Aren't Worth the Money." Business Insider. May 4, 2013. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Kulikowski, Laurie. "20 Colleges Where Your Return on Investment Is Terrible." The Street. June 5, 2016. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Miller, Ben. "America's Worst Colleges." Washington Monthly. September/October 2014. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
Sydlansky, Paul. "Calculating the ROI of a College Education." Investopedia. May 22, 2018. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.