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New data tells what a Virginia college degree is worth

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A bachelor’s degree in psychology from George Mason University fetched a median starting salary of $30,256 for recent graduates who landed a job in the state. A degree in computer and information sciences from GMU drew $55,213.

In both fields, those salaries beat the state average and exceeded what graduates from many other Virginia colleges were earning within 18 months of receiving identical degrees.

Those are among the findings from a groundbreaking database Virginia published Thursday that pinpoints for the first time how much graduates from specific college programs, public and private, earn when they enter the job market. That’s a matter of intense interest to many parents and lawmakers in an era of rising student debt and college bills that can total tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Students and their families should have this information at their fingertips so they can make better-informed decisions about where to enroll, what to major in and how much debt they might comfortably take on relative to their likely earnings,” Mark Schneider, vice president of the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, told Congress last month.

Virginia’s data initiative has been quietly in the works for a few years. This year, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) teamed up on a bill that would help other states link detailed higher education and labor market data and report it to the public. They call it the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.” Experts say similar disclosure efforts are underway in Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Texas.

The data released Thursday by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia came with plenty of caveats. It did not include salary information for graduates who left the state or got a job in the military or federal government. There were no adjustments for regional differences in the cost of living. Many four-year graduates went on to graduate school instead of seeking a job.

Experts cautioned that it can take several years to reveal the earning power of a degree, and that higher education is about far more than a financial return on investment. Still, the data cast a spotlight on a core question: What is a degree worth?

For people who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at a Virginia college and then obtained a job within the state, part of the answer could lie in their median starting salary. That, according to the state data, which aggregated information for graduates from 2005 to 2010, was $35,565.

At Marymount University in Arlington, the median for such graduates was a bit higher: $37,582. Annual tuition at the private school is $24,900.

“We’re trying to educate the whole person at Marymount,” said the school’s president, Matt Shank, “so when you look at salary it’s just one sliver of the bigger picture.”

Shank, like other college leaders, said students should also factor financial aid into their thinking about value.

Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason, said: “My biggest fear is that people would rush to premature conclusions about the value of a particular degree. You sort of want a view that would have whole careers in mind. There’s more to a job than income.”

At GMU, a public university, in-state tuition is $9,420.

Several educators said they worried that the publication of salary data would give potential applicants a misleading picture of schools. “It’s hard not to make judgments when you look at raw data like that,” said Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University in Winchester. “I wouldn’t want students and their parents to choose an educational institution, or even a career, based solely on projected earnings.”

The data show that median starting salaries for recent graduates with Shenandoah bachelor’s degrees ranged from $21,143 (environmental studies) to $47,148 (respiratory care therapy). Annual tuition at the private school is $27,550.

At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, the chief of staff to President Richard V. Hurley said he didn’t know what to make of the data.

“I was a history major,” said Martin Wilder. “How about you?” For those with a bachelor’s degree in history from the school, the median starting salary was $28,403. The public university’s in-state tuition is $4,686.

The Virginia database grew out of a movement to trace the path of individual students from elementary school through college, what is known as a “longitudinal data system.” In recent years, state officials also have conferred about how to link education data with employment and wage records gathered for the state un­employment insurance program. They came up with a solution that stripped the merged records of identifying individual information to protect the privacy of students, graduates and employees.

This year, the state legislature passed a law requiring annual publication of the wage and degree data.

The state higher education council consulted extensively with college leaders to assuage their concerns. Caveats and provisos about the wage and salary information are displayed prominently on the Web site.

“The more we talk to them, the more at ease they seem to be with it,” said Kirsten Nelson, a spokeswoman for the council.

Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution analyst who was a senior education official in George W. Bush’s administration, said the publication of labor market data linked to colleges is overdue and is more important to applicants than indicators such as graduation rates or admissions selectivity.

“The most important thing government can do to increase productivity and innovation in higher education is to let people actually shop,” Whitehurst said. “It is revolutionary.”

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