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Published: Nov 21, 2019 8 min read
Photo by Tina Fineberg/AP/Shutterstock; a graduation ceremony at NYU
Tina Fineberg/AP/Shutterstock—Tina Fineberg/AP/Shutterstock

Families finally have access to data that may help them answer the now-common question: Is college "worth it" financially?

The federal government on Wednesday released median salaries and median debt load broken down by academic program in a bid to give students more information as they make enrollment decisions. The data is an update to the College Scorecard, the U.S. Department of Education’s consumer search tool that also includes information about graduation rates, average costs, and typical monthly debt payments.

Aside from a handful of states that have published similar information, the new data are by far the most comprehensive information students have had to research the potential payoff of a degree. Previously, students could only look up the median earnings and debt at the institution level. Now, they can look up outcomes of more than 45,000 programs, comparing those within a single institution as well as those offered at other schools.

At most programs, the data show graduates earn a salary in their first year of work that is higher than the total amount they borrowed—a common benchmark given to families figuring our how much debt is responsible. But there are plenty of examples of programs, even at well-known universities, that seem to leave graduates with unmanageable debt. A master's degree at New York University's prestigious film school, for example, has average earnings of less than $30,000 and an average debt load of nearly $166,000.

The Wall Street Journal, which got an early look at the data, found that at 15% of programs, students graduate with a debt load higher than their first-year salaries, and at 2% of programs, graduates owned more than double their annual salaries. Michael Itzkowitz, former director of the Scorecard and now a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way, found that about 32% of associate degree programs in the new data and 12% of bachelor's degree programs have graduates who earn less than $25,000 right after leaving school. That's close to the average salary for a worker with only a high school degree.

The new data represents the Trump administration’s view that giving families more information is the best way to combat rising prices and debt levels that leave some students unable to pay back their loans. The idea is that if students have more information, they'll choose to attend colleges with better outcomes, and that alone will help weed out low-performing programs.

Others — especially left-leaning advocates — have argued that this increased transparency is a good first step, but that it needs to be coupled with stronger rules for holding low-performing colleges accountable. They've also criticized Education Secretary Betsy Devos for rolling back existing accountability rules. The Obama administration had designed one such program, called the gainful employment rule, targeting programs at for-profit colleges and other vocational schools that left students with debt levels too high for their earnings. That rule was officially repealed this summer after years of debate and litigation.

The Education Department’s press release described the data as “relevant, actionable information.” But it’s not clear the degree to which students will use it.

The Department of Education has already worked with Google to display some of the information when a user searches for a college, and department officials told the Wall Street Journal that partnership would continue. On the other hand, at least one study has shown a similar consumer tool had little effect on students college-going decisions.

That said, the information is something higher education researchers and think tanks have been wanting for years, and there's no doubt researchers and college administrators will slice it up in ways that could provide useful information for families. (Some have already started.) Money plans to include the new data in next year's Best Colleges rankings.

If you are going to use the new data, here’s what to keep in mind.

Researching Colleges and Programs

The earnings data include information for 2-year and 4-year degrees, certificate programs, and graduate degrees. But not every academic program or college is on the website.

Colleges that don’t participate in the federal financial aid program are not included. That could be many community colleges, as well as private four-year colleges that decline to participate for philosophical reasons. And earnings won’t be available for programs with few students because of privacy concerns.

Perhaps more importantly, even for the colleges that are on the website, the earnings and debt data are based only on students who either took out a federal student loan or received a federal grant in college. In some cases, such as at expensive graduate programs where nearly all students have to borrow, that will capture nearly everyone. But in other cases, the data is based on a minority of students. For example, at George Washington University, a private college in Washington, D.C., just 37% of students take out loans, according to the website.

College Graduate Earnings Data

The earnings were measured in 2016-2017 for students who graduated in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. On the bright side, that's fairly recent as far as education data goes. (Data often lag many years.) But that means the salaries are those of brand new college graduates, and earnings growth looks different in different careers.

Jordan Matsudaira, an economist at Columbia University who oversaw the initial College Scorecard launch under the Obama administration, pointed out on Twitter that biology majors often earn lower first year salaries than applied sciences, but over the years bio grads wind up earning more. Research shows liberal arts majors, too, start out at the lower end of the pay scale but gradually close the earnings gap over decades of work.

The Education Department says it plans to continue updating the tool so that longer-term earnings will be available in the future.

Complications Over What College Majors Pay the Best

A student's major is one of the most important factors in determining their earnings trajectory, and that's why researchers have pushed for the release of earnings broken down by program. But program-level data is not exactly the same as major-level data. Specific majors are broken out into 6-digit codes and then wrapped up into broader 4-digit and 2-digit organizations. So, for example, French teacher education and math teacher education will have different 6-digit codes, but both of those will be wrapped up under the same 4-digit code (in this case, it's one titled "Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Subject Areas").

Tod Massa, policy analytics director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, told Inside Higher Ed there can be significant differences in course requirements for majors that fall under the same broader program-level.

“They could also just be valued in the marketplace differently just based on the name of the degree," he said.