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.”