College Ratings vs. College Majors

Over the last few years education reformers, particularly those writing for this publication, have become interested in President Barack Obama’s plan to rate American colleges based on their cost and student outcomes.

The Obama plan would evaluate institutions of higher learning based on tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of poor students enrolled. Eventually the president the federal government will distribute federal money with this information.

How much such a rating system will help depends on the changes colleges make to address it and the sanctions the administration (the next one) can institute for failing to do well on the ratings.

But the problem with the Obama rating is that it’s coming up against another education reform of sorts, one many of us didn’t expect. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Two government initiatives seeking to understand the value of a college education are about to butt heads.

The White House spelled out a plan Friday to rank the nation’s 5,000 colleges and universities, reasoning that students need more information before committing to the hefty expense of higher education. At the same time, and with much less fanfare, the U.S.Census Bureau has proposed ending its efforts to collect data on college majors.

This is part of a general tweak to the Census. Such things occur periodically.

The Census proposed removing seven sets of data from the ACS. In addition to ceasing data collection on college majors, the Census would drop five questions about people’s marital status, and one housing question from their survey. While seven questions are currently being considered for elimination, 17 more have been identified by Census as “low-benefit” and in need of further scrutiny.

This isn’t a direct problem, but it does look a little odd. What’s important to measure about college, after all?

The White House… has released a draft framework to rate schools on graduation and retention rates, the ability of graduates to pay back student loans, and whether schools include low-income and first-generation students. This initiative, run out of the Department of Education, would not rely on ACS data. But both the Census data and the Department of Education data speak directly to the same question: how valuable is a college education?

That’s right, the Census will now stop asking about college major, which is connected to career earnings.

Some see this as a big problem. As Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s Anthony Carnevale put it to the Wall Street Journal: “What we know, largely because of the ACS data, is it’s not about the value of colleges, it’s about the value of the major you take when you go to college.”

Well, perhaps. But just because college major is an easy way to look at careers earnings doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best one, or that it leads to good policy changes.

The problem with college major as a way to look at college success it that it’s mostly just a look at career, not college, quality. If one college is producing a lot of elementary school teachers and another one is producing a lot of investment bankers, is the second school a better one because graduate earnings are higher?

No, of course not. What matters is not how many people with high salaries a school produces, but how many graduates have salaries appropriate to serve the debt assumed to go to college.

We should be producing a lot of elementary school teachers and it’s fine if they start out earning $25,000 a year and never end up making high salaries. If that’s enough to pay for the loans assumed, there’s certainly no problem with the school they attended.

In fact, the Census may be onto something. Maybe there’s a better way to look at college quality. Do we need to worry so much what jobs and what salaries do college graduates get? Maybe it’s best to concentrate on the basic things colleges are supposed to do: did the students graduate, did they get jobs, and do they make enough to live relatively comfortably? That’s really all that matters.

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