Higher Education

Calculating a College Degree's True Value


From left, Tod Massa (“What we want is for students to make informed decisions”) and Mark Schneider

Photographs by Jared Soares for Bloomberg Businessweek

From left, Tod Massa (“What we want is for students to make informed decisions”) and Mark Schneider

How much is a college diploma actually worth? The perennial question asked by every former English, philosophy, and art history major now has an answer in some states. For University of Virginia students, it pays to major in engineering—$60,300, on average, 18 months after graduation—rather than sociology ($33,154), or worse, biology ($27,209). In Tennessee, a graduate of Dyersburg State Community College with an associate’s degree in health earns an average $5,000 more than someone who majored in health and picked up a bachelor’s at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the state’s flagship school.

With tuition and student debt skyrocketing and dim job prospects awaiting many graduates, states are trying to show residents what kind of return they can realistically expect for investing in a degree from a public college or university. That’s why Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas are collecting salary data on their graduates and posting it online at CollegeMeasures.org, a website run by a former education official in the Bush administration. The database, which doesn’t reveal any names or other identifying information, shows students how much money they can expect to earn based on the major and school they choose. Colorado, Nevada, and Texas will also begin using it in early 2013.

“What we want is for students to make informed decisions,” says Tod Massa, director of policy research and data warehousing at Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education. Massa, who’d been pushing for such a database for years, had little success until 2011, when the Virginia legislature passed a law mandating that the state publish salary data for graduates of all colleges and universities, public and private. Schools “need to coordinate their level of student borrowing with [students’] likely ability to repay,” Massa says. Virginia shares its information with CollegeMeasures and operates its own website, publishing data for graduates up to five years out of school.

The federal government tried, but failed, to do something similar. In 2005 the U.S. Department of Education floated the idea of collecting student records from colleges to gauge student performance and compare it with workforce data. The proposal would have required an act of Congress, but the Bush administration dropped the idea after an outcry from civil libertarians and schools concerned about students’ privacy. In 2008, Congress prohibited transcript collection by the Education Department.

States, though, aren’t bound by that ban. To assemble their data, both CollegeMeasures and Virginia’s higher ed council match students’ majors to their wage records held by the state unemployment insurance program. (Only graduates working in the state are accounted for in the salary databases.) Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures, says it protects residents’ identities by not publishing information about academic programs with fewer than 10 graduates. Plus, Social Security numbers are stripped from the records before Schneider’s site gets them.

Nonetheless, schools are worried the file sharing could lead to privacy breaches. “People aren’t being told what’s being done with their records,” says Sarah Flanagan of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a lobbying group in Washington.

College administrators say the data collection will discourage students from choosing majors such as English, philosophy, and art history. They fear that states might also use the data to withhold public funding for programs with low earning prospects. “Everything that can be counted doesn’t necessarily count,” says Flanagan. “There are many valuable things that a quality education provides that cannot be reduced to numbers or data points.”

Schneider acknowledges the data he’s publishing is best viewed with a critical eye. A student with a two-year nursing degree from a community college might earn more one year after graduation than an English major at a liberal arts school, he says, but over the span of a career, those with bachelor’s degrees will end up making more than those with associate’s degrees. His database also excludes federal workers and the self-employed. In some cases, higher wages may be a result of a higher cost of living in areas where recent graduates find jobs.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have proposed legislation that would force all 50 states to disclose salary data for public and private school graduates. The bill hasn’t gone anywhere, but Schneider says he thinks Congress will come around. “People are looking at higher education in a totally different way than they did before.”

The bottom line: Before picking a major at a public university, students in three states can go online to see how much money recent graduates are making.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzadwoskin.

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