College generic library

It looks like the feds are getting even more serious about giving prospective and current students more — and more specific — information about U.S. colleges and universities.

Back in the spring, the U.S. Department of Education revamped its consumer search tool known as College Scorecard to add more schools and more data. Six months later it has injected earnings and debt info into its Scorecard. From a news release:

"For the first time ever, students will now have access to information on the median earnings and median debt of a school's graduates, based on their chosen field of study. That means, for example, a student interested in studying engineering can now compare outcomes, such as first-year earnings and student loan debt, among engineering programs within an institution and among those offered at other schools. Students will be able to see if a career and technical education program at a two-year institution might generate a higher return on investment than a more traditional program at a four-year institution. Rather than having to rely on reputation-based rankings, the Scorecard will also allow students to choose a program based on the outcomes of students who have already completed that program.

"Previously, Scorecard users could only see the median earnings and median debt at the institutional level, which is a fairly meaningless metric given the diversity of programs and outcomes at any given single school. The Scorecard now shows the range of earnings among the various programs an institution offers."

This Associated Press story covers the basics. Here's more from Money.com.

For fun, let's take a quick look at some top threes in programs, earnings and debt at the city's two public universities.

At UNCG, business administration, nursing and psychology are the three most popular fields of study. Computer science, nursing and computer systems networking students pulled in the top salaries a year after graduation. Liberal arts and sciences/general studies/humanities, nursing and special education graduates left school with the lowest amount of debt.

At N.C. A&T, the three most popular fields of study are communications and media studies, health and phys ed, and psychology. The three programs that yielded the best median salaries a year after graduation are mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and computer science. Graduates of nursing, chemical engineering and general agriculture carried the least amount of debt.

Robert Kelchen, the higher education professor quoted in a lot of last week's coverage of the new College Scorecard, dove a little deeper into the program-level data in his blog.

In general, Kelchen found that graduates of nursing, computer science and information technology programs commanded the best salaries right after college. Psychology, drama/theater arts and biology were the lowest-paid. For grad schools, the top three in year-after-graduation earnings are nursing, business and pharmacy; the bottom three are music, student counseling and social work. Among two-year colleges, nursing, information technology and fire protection generally paid the best, while criminal justice, health and medical administration and teacher education paid the least.

But all of these new numbers come with plenty of caveats. As this Inside Higher Ed story points out:

"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."

Here are even more caveats from an econ professor and a former university president. The general expert consensus seems to be that the data is incomplete. For instance, College Scorecard presents earning and debt numbers by program, not by major, and the two things aren't always synonymous. Moreover, data for small programs aren't reported because of privacy concerns, and only data for students who received federal financial aid is included.

Also: The earnings data is for only the first year after graduation. That means the undergraduate data doesn't account for students who went on to graduate or professional schools (although the Scorecard does include earnings and debt for university law schools, med schools and the like, and fed ed officials say they'll expand the data range in coming years). The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce several years ago compiled earnings data for college majors that give a better look at what you might expect to get paid in a career as an engineer or a teacher or a journalist. Unlike the Scorecard, however, the Georgetown project doesn't match earnings data to specific programs at specific colleges.

I'm in the camp of more-data-is-better-than-no-data, and I think the Scorecard additions are valuable, even with the caveats. Go check it out. I'd love to hear what you think.

Have something to say about this blog post? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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