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All about money: Evaluate Colleges through Students' Starting Salaries

25 September 2012

What if lawmakers and students used starting salaries to evaluate colleges and their programs? 

"The Earning Power of Graduates From Tennessee's Colleges and Universities" – a report conducted by College Measures, a partnership of the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge, a consulting firm – is the latest effort to precisely quantify the value of a degree. It identifies the payoff that individual programs at specific colleges yield the first year after graduation. While limited to Tennessee, it will be followed by similar analyses in other states, and it marks the arrival of a new way of evaluating higher education that brings conversations about college productivity and performance to the program level.

The report has been praised by some analysts for merging data on education and employment in valuable ways and for producing revealing insights. For instance, in Tennessee, attending the flagship, in Knoxville, might not lead to a higher paycheck for new graduates than completing a community-college program, depending on the major a student chooses.

While the Tennessee report is not meant as a tool to hold individual institutions and programs accountable, Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and president of College Measures, says it may help policy makers and administrators ask more-probing questions and identify programs that might be underperforming.

The main purpose of these reports, however, is to help students and their families make better-informed choices among colleges and majors, the authors say. While the purpose of college is not solely to get a job and earn money, they acknowledge, pay is still an important consideration.

"Part of the motivation of this report is that I don't want students borrowing $100,000 for a degree in which they'll earn $25,000," Mr. Schneider says. "It's not the debt that matters, it's the salary."

Elizabeth Minnich, a philosopher who is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agrees that graduates need to be able to earn a living, and that financial analyses of colleges have their place, but framing the broader purpose of higher education in monetary terms is harmful, she says. It equates college with a wage and reduces education to a single goal: getting a job.

The differing outlooks for philosophy majors, depending on whether they are in their first year after college or at midcareer, suggest the chief limitation of the Tennessee report, according to both its supporters and its critics. They say first-year earnings data paint a misleading picture of a graduate's path through life.

"A starting salary doesn't tell you anything about whether you're in a dead-end job or about the quality of the work," Ms. Minnich says.

Another limitation of the report is that it does not account for regional differences in wages, which could skew how much money graduates earn. The University of Memphis, for example, located in the state's largest city, fares quite well in the report.

However, the purpose of the report, says Mr. Schneider, is something more personal: to help students understand that majoring in such disciplines as family studies or religious studies entails some risk of low pay.

*Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

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