The Salary Obsession

One new plan to measure college effectiveness would rate colleges in part based on how much their graduates earn. Students would be able to decide on colleges by comparing how much the place costs relative to how much they might earn later. This is an understandable move for colleges to make, but it reflects some really misguided priorities.

According to an article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post:

Until now, it has been almost impossible for students to include in their deliberations what graduating from specific colleges and their programs is likely to yield in terms of jobs and salaries after graduation. But that is starting to change.

Information will begin to become available this year that will enable students to say: “If I go to College X and earn a nursing/economics/marketing degree, I’m more likely to get a good-paying job post-graduation than if I receive the same degree from College Y.”

This comes, or is coming, as a result of a shift in priorities over time in the way America tracks and measures its universities. De Vise:

The primary source of new information is a new Labor Department-driven, data-sharing partnership among states, called the Wage Records Interchange System. The Labor Department has placed state-level employment and earnings data in a single place and is now getting states to agree to share the data. So, with the push of a button, states can look into each other’s databases.

Twenty-two states have signed on so far, with more coming on board every month. With access to this information, college administrators in Maryland will be able to see where their students have gone to work and how much they are earning – unless, of course, they inquire about their Virginia-bound graduates or others who have moved to states that have yet to join the agreement. Yes, that means that Virginia – unless it signs on – cannot get good information about most students who graduate and then go to work in Maryland, or D.C., or North Carolina, or any other state.

A second important source of information about college graduates’ jobs and earnings will be released this year by the Department of Education. So called “Gainful Employment Reports” will reveal employment and earnings levels for students who graduate from the most popular technical certificate programs at colleges all across the country. If these reports show wide disparities among graduates from different colleges, can it be long before the same data are demanded for all bachelors’ degree programs?

This is vulgar. We go to college to learn. Jobs are secondary. A college education, as much as possible, should help people understand that lots of things are far more important than how much you earn.

The Gainful Employment Reports make sense because they measure the earnings of people who attend vocational institutions, not colleges. Vocational schools exist only to help people get jobs. But that’s simply not what college is for.

We get focused on these job earnings measures of college effectiveness for two reasons. In the first place, this is because we don’t really have a good measure of how much students learn in college. The other reason Americans have started to worry about earnings is because the debt of undergraduates is skyrocketing.

But the debt is the real problem. That’s the thing to address here, not the earnings later. These aren’t vocational schools.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer