Know before you go: uncovering the payoffs of higher education

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 11:05 p.m. MDT

A graduating Virginia high school senior enjoys a host of college choices. A driven student might go to the storied University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe in 1819.

Four years later, with a degree in either art or anthropology, she may enter the workforce and eighteen months after that, according to a new database from the state of Virginia, she will be earning roughly $28,000 a year.

Her best friend might go to Danville Community College, founded in 1936 as Danville Textile School. Eighteen months later her friend would leave with a diploma in electrical or communications technology. And eighteen months after that, she would likely be earning over $34,000.

Another high school senior weighing a four year business degree at either UVA or George Mason University in Fairfax might like to know that UVA business graduates earn $8,714 more per year than GMU grads. In economics, however, the two are very close.

All of this is information at a high school senior might like to have at hand, but until now has been denied to them. That is changing, however, and fast.

Virginia has been online for nearly a year now with its job performance data, Colorado went up this week and other states will follow soon. Waiting in the wings is proposed federal legislation, spearheaded by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), which could turn everything upside down.

The statewide data is culled from state unemployment records kept by every state to mete out unemployment benefits. Until now no one had thought to leverage these numbers to inform education and career choices. But by separating the data from individual identities, that same data can reveal much about education and careers.

Some critics fear that the numbers will be misunderstood and abused, that education will be reduced to job-hunting rather than horizon-enlargement.

But proponents of the data-driven approach see a path to modernize how Americans think about post-secondary education. Whether you end up at a four-year school or not, they argue, real data makes for better policy and better consumer choices.

Virginia leads out

All this data on Virginia colleges is readily available online thanks to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. SCHEV has built an interactive website with the numbers.

One of the key findings, said Tod Massa, SCHEV’s Director of Policy Research and Data Warehousing, the value of community colleges.

“Those are high value programs with an extraordinarily low cost to the students,” Massa said. Statewide, for example, graduates of community college occupational and technical programs earn almost $2,500 more per year, on average, than those who earn four-year baccalaureates — at least 18 months out.

Among four year degrees, the gulf is wide from one major to the next and, within majors, from one school to the next. A painting major at the Virginia Commonwealth University scrapes bottom with $23,000, while a human resources management major from the University of Richmond pulls in $69,000 after eighteen months.

Defenders of traditional liberal arts education argue that these majors have higher upside. And because they emphasize information processing, cognitive skills, and higher abstraction, they are more likely to adapt with a changing economy. The current data, its defenders acknowledge, will be inadequate until it can be stretched over a 5 or 10 year horizon.

Virginia took pains to minimize opposition before the database rolled out, recognizing that there would be resentment when comparisons between majors and schools were laid bare. Academics in less remunerative fields or institutions instinctively object to quantifying the difference.

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