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The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday released data on first-year earnings of college graduates, for the first time broken down by program level. The information, collected from federal tax data, is the most comprehensive and likely accurate information on different college programs currently available.

Combined with the program-level debt information the department released in May, prospective students, researchers and administrators can now -- as some have already done -- slice and dice the information to identify what majors are “worth it” (in at least one simplistic way) and which college graduates earn the most. But the data are likely to continue, rather than end, debate over whether vocationally oriented data like earnings and debt are the right way to judge higher education programs.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that the data will provide "real information students need to make informed, personalized decisions about their education."

"Rather than having to rely on reputation-based rankings," the department said in a release, "the [data] will also allow students to choose a program based on the outcomes of students who have already completed that program."

The data have been integrated into the Education Department’s College Scorecard and are also available in raw form for download. The credential levels range from certificates and associate degrees to the doctoral and professional levels.

Comparing the median debt level of graduates in a program to their median first-year earnings yields some interesting, and, for some, troubling, results. Of the nearly 41,000 programs included in the data set, median debt exceeded median first-year earnings by more than $1,000 for 6,520 of them.

Because the earnings data look only at a graduate’s first year in the workforce, some noted their limited ability to characterize a lifetime of earnings. Liberal arts degree recipients, in particular, are likely to make low starting salaries before incrementally increasing their incomes.

“In some fields of study, earnings change quite a bit the first few years out,” said Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “In other fields they may not change as much, because you basically enter at the top of the salary scale.”

Missing from the data set is information about programs with few students, which the department has held back because of privacy concerns. The debt data were collected from students who graduated in the 2016 and 2017 academic years and represent their debt at graduation. The earnings data were collected from students who graduated in 2015 and 2016.

The release is a continuation of the Trump administration’s current path of preferring information to regulation. The administration has rolled back several key rules governing higher education while collecting and releasing more and more consumer-facing transparency data.

The College Scorecard site was first launched by the Obama administration, along with a regulation called the gainful-employment rule. The gainful-employment rule sought to penalize vocationally oriented programs (mostly at for-profit and community colleges) for producing too many graduates with unmanageable student debt. DeVos repealed the rule this past July, choosing to rely more on the hand of the market than on the arm of the government to punish the lemons of the industry. The new data allow consumers to make a similar analysis of programs, this time including traditional colleges, but only if they elect to look.

“This is not a replacement for accountability,” said Clare McCann, a former Obama administration education official and deputy director of federal higher education policy at New America. “Students are not so receptive to information. That’s not going to be anywhere near as effective as holding colleges accountable for what their outcomes look like.”

How prospective students (and their parents) will use the new information remains to be seen.

“When students are looking for colleges, generally speaking, they’re weighing a lot of things,” McCann said. “Oftentimes something like price and location is going to outweigh something like these kinds of debt and earnings data.” Still, she said, the data could be useful when it comes to making choices between programs and institutions, and in giving students a clear view of what they’re getting into.

Tod Massa, policy analytics director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, suggested that the data will be more utilized by think tanks and researchers than by prospective students, especially because some similar data have been previously released by state governments.

“I’m not convinced it’s going to markedly affect student behavior,” he said, “except perhaps in states where the data are not available or where students are looking at institutions not typically covered by the states, such as the proprietary institutions.”

Kelchen suggested that the effect on enrollment for these programs is likely to be greater for graduate rather than undergraduate programs.

“Those students are used to looking at information,” he said, “and may be more geographically mobile.”

Kelchen emphasized the value of the data to college administrations themselves.

“For the first time at many colleges, they know information about the earnings of their graduates,” he said. “This could get colleges to reconsider whether they offer certain programs, especially graduate programs or more vocational programs. I don’t think this affects the core liberal arts.”

The department has been working with Google to make the College Scorecard information easily accessible to the public. When googling a college or university, typically the search engine will display a box with College Scorecard data.

“One thing I know is that Google will do it better than the government can do it,” Diane Auer Jones, the department’s top higher education official, said in July after the department updated the government site.

McCann said that Google’s involvement could bring the information to prospective students more effectively than the department’s site. “Students aren’t likely to go to obscure government websites,” she said.

Massa said that in a cursory look at the Scorecard information, median earnings reported for some Virginia programs are higher than what is reported by the commonwealth. The federal government, he said, has access to some earnings information, such as income from self-employment, that the state doesn’t.

Massa also emphasized that he rejects calling the information “program level,” because it is often less intricate than that. Similar to how postal service zip codes can be five digits, covering a few miles, or nine digits, which could be a single apartment building, the National Center for Education Statistics maintains a similar taxonomy for programs and degrees. The way the current data parse earnings is not as specific as it could be, going down to the four-digit level instead of the six-digit level, meaning that some very similar degrees, such as one bachelor’s in American history and another in European history, are likely to be lumped together.

“There can be a significant difference in program in terms of the courses required and taken between two programs with similar but not identical [codes],” Massa said. “They could also just be valued in the marketplace differently just based on the name of the degree.”

Kelchen emphasized that the debt and earnings data were taken from different samples of students, making the comparison less than perfect.

The Education Department has said it will update the information annually, eventually providing earnings figures for 10 years postgraduation.

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