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September 16, 2013 12:42 PM Should We Really Be Evaluating Colleges on Salary Expectations?

By Daniel Luzer

According to a recent article in the New York Times, students are starting to rethink college. Not rethink in terms of deciding whether or not to go; they’re just now trying to evaluate potential institutions based on how much money they might make once they graduate.

PayScale this week released its latest rankings of colleges and universities. But its rankings are all about incomes and jobs. It ranks over a thousand institutions by the average earnings of their graduates. It also calculates and ranks the average return on investment for a college and the percentage of graduates holding jobs with “high meaning.” Some of those results may come as a shock, especially to graduates of some prestigious colleges.
PayScale’s rankings are just one manifestation of a growing nationwide movement toward quantifying the outcomes of college education based on economic factors like income and employment.The Obama administration wants to rank colleges by tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and use the rankings to influence federal financial aid to students.
But this can lead to some absurd and potentially alarming conclusions.

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No kidding.

That’s because salary doesn’t have much to do with where you go to school, and everything to do with what profession one enters after. The article explains that “Ivy League graduates do quite well… with Princeton ranked sixth and Harvard eighth in PayScale’s rankings based on ‘midcareer median salary.’” But that’s because Ivy League graduates tend to go into high earning professions once they graduate. If you go to Dartmouth and become a performance artist or an elementary school teacher you’re going to be just as poor as if you’d gone to Plymouth State or the University of Maine.

One of the “absurd and potentially alarming conclusions” comes from state rankings. As the article explains, the top ranked first-year salary school in Virginia is something called the Jefferson College of Health Sciences. So were we all wrong? Is this school better than UVA or William and Mary? Of course not, it’s just a pre-professional school focusing on health sciences jobs, which tend to pay pretty well.

Such a ranking system isn’t ridiculous, of course. People go to college with some expectation of a getting a reasonably secure professional job once they graduate. And it’s useful to get some idea of what they might be able to make.

But is this quality? Is this a good way to make financial decisions about college? It’s one factor. But it’s a factor we need to consider very carefully.

When making decisions about college there are two financial things to consider: what it costs to go there and how much money one will make upon graduation. It’s true the second thing matters a lot, but only the first is something colleges control.

It’s true that one’s ability to pay back loans comfortably has a lot to do with how much money one makes. But, after accounting for career choices, where one goes to college doesn’t directly have anything to do with salary. Colleges are, however, directly responsible for how much debt they leave students.

The debt is what really matters. Keeping debt levels down is the thing that would have the most dramatically positive impact on the lives of college graduates. And that’s not only true for the graduates who become teachers or social workers; it’s also true for the ones who become investment bankers and doctors.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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