Special Report

September/October 2011 Is Our Students Earning?

A new way of measuring how different colleges pay off in the long run.

By Erin Dillon

Our calculations scramble the U.S. News hierarchy in all sorts of ways. A handful of the top ten—Dartmouth, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania—stay on top. But others slip— Harvard, for example, falls, to twentieth place. Still other prestigious schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and Yale, don’t break the top sixty, trailing lesser-known public institutions like George Mason University, San Diego State University, and Northern Illinois University, all of which make the top thirty when their alumni’s earnings are taken into account.

Because Payscale doesn’t have data for every college, we couldn’t include our ROI calculations in our national university rankings. But if we did, it would shake up our list, too, moving Stanford University to number one. The University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Pennsylvania move into the top ten, bumping out Case Western Reserve University, Jackson State University, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Getting a job and making money aren’t the only reasons to go to college, of course. But they’re the main reasons for most students. As the current brutal job market shows, it’s critically important for students to get a diploma that will pay off. And as more earnings data becomes available from public and private sources, the time when all colleges will be judged by measures like ROI is quickly approaching. Our first look at the likely results suggests that some colleges won’t be able to hide behind nationwide averages for college graduate earnings anymore. Others, though, will get deserved credit for preparing students to succeed in their careers, in good times as well as bad.

Erin Dillon is a senior policy analyst at Education sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.


  • Appalled on August 30, 2011 8:55 AM:

    The headline writer needs to go back to school and take an English class... "IS our students learning?" Really?!!?

  • Betty Hernandez on August 30, 2011 1:01 PM:

    I don't feel inclined to read articles with titles that include bad English.

  • Unappalled on August 30, 2011 11:17 PM:

    She is probably trying to make a clever play on Kevin Carey's article title "Is Our Students Learning?". While the bad grammar of Carey's title corresponds to his article's content, Dillon's title (or the headline writer's) can boast no similar correlation.

  • Nonprofit veteran on August 31, 2011 7:23 PM:

    I applaud the effort to develop this kind of study and appreciate the limitations of the data. When better information is available, I'd love to see more segmentation like the breakout of the science and engineering schools.

    For example, unless I'm misunderstanding the methodology, it seems to me that a school that sends a large number of graduates into public service careers--either in government or the nonprofit sector--would be penalized under this ranking system. So would a school whose graduates tend to remain in regions of the country where salaries are lower. I'm sure no one intended to imply either is a bad thing.

  • Really Not Appalled on September 03, 2011 12:12 PM:

    The title is another play on the George W. Bush quote "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

  • tom on September 03, 2011 4:13 PM:

    @appalled: How soon we forget our Bushisms.

  • catclub on September 08, 2011 12:48 PM:

    I will second Nonprofit veteran, but as a first shot, and if you actually are interested in college as job training, the results are pretty relevant.