This week I have had a chance to play with the newest tool offered by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) called the College Scorecard.
The new College Scorecard has two useful features that I had not found on other sites. You can find out, courtesy of state unemployment insurance data, what graduates of a school are earning, on average, 10 years out. You can also find the monthly payments for a student loan given the indebtedness of the average student borrower who recently graduated (presume 2013, since that’s the year most data sources are using) from that school.
The idea behind the new College Scorecard was to give prospective students a sense of whether a college would offer a good “return on investment,” given the college’s costs. The idea, while well intentioned, to show an average salary, only opens more questions.
The problem with relying on average salary data to determine the worth of a college is that it does not consider what a college is, or why students chose to go there. A school that offers a larger percentage of degrees in engineering and computer science, for example, will have graduates who earn higher average starting salaries than schools that lean more towards granting liberal arts degrees.
Salaries are not tied to alma mater but to the demand to fill a job in a given place. Suppose that an employer needs a chemical engineer to go to work in an oil field in North or South Dakota. The area is in a “boom” economy. But there’s not much more to do near the oil field when you’re not at work. The employers will have to pay more to get the workers they want than the pharmaceutical company that has a job for a chemical engineer in Princeton, New Jersey. Salaries are also a reflection of the competition to hire capable people and attract them to live in a high-cost area. That’s why salaries in investment banking are going to be higher in New York City than they are likely to be in Kansas City.
For example, the average salary ten years out for Rutgers-New Brunswick graduates was $56,800 versus $65,300 for graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and $82,800 for graduates of Stevens Institute of Technology, a small private (2,500 undergraduate) science/technology focused National Research University.
What does that tell students interested in science or engineering who live in New Jersey?
Would it mean that Stevens is a better science/engineering school, or a better value, than these two public schools? It might be, presuming the student had the opportunity to pay the same to go to Stevens as s/he would pay to go to Rutgers or NJIT. New Jersey has a state scholarship program to help the needier students. No doubt that each institution will go to that money first for financial aid. But the dollar amount is going to be the same no matter which school the student chooses. State government will not give an individual student a larger grant to attend a private college over a public one.
I looked at the student loan indebtedness information on the College Scorecard for all three schools.
I look at this, match it up with the salary information on the College Scorecard, and determines that Stevens is still my best value. The difference in debt does not appear to be significant, considering the differences in starting salaries.
But wait..there’s more.
Rutgers-New Brunswick is a much larger university than Stevens. Its College of Engineering alone has more than 3,500 undergraduates; that’s 1,000 more students than Stevens has total. Yet the university also has nearly 20,000 undergraduates in its School of Arts and Sciences. The students in that school, who are likely to earn lower salaries than the engineers, represent 65 percent of the undergraduate student body.
So here’s the first serious flaw: we really don’t know what the engineering graduates earn versus the rest of the former students at all three schools, as well as many others that I did not research.
For all we know, Rutgers grads who studied engineering earned as much as the NJIT and Stevens grads who also did. That would take a visit to the career center or a research inquiry to the schools.
Stevens is a fine school. The Institute’s freshman retention rate is 96 percent, better than any school in New Jersey, even in the New Jersey-New York Metropolitan Area, excluding Columbia, Princeton and Yale. However, the Institute’s four-year graduation rate is less than 45 percent. That includes all of their majors, not just engineering. Rutgers is at 59 percent, through that includes every major. I’d be leery about attending a private university, especially one as demanding and expensive as Stevens, that did not graduate at least half of its students on time.
Stevens aggressively markets cooperative education to its students and does it very well. It’s quite possible that, given the school is a short commute to New York City, that students take advantage of this program and attend for an extra year. Stevens five-year graduation rate is 77 percent, about the same as Rutgers for all majors, yet Stevens costs more to attend. You won’t pay an extra year’s tuition and fees to go there on co-op for the fifth year. But you will pay the extra costs of living in a high-cost urban area that you will not pay if you went to Rutgers.
Suppose that a student is also considering NJIT, which offers a cooperative education program in engineering that does not require students to go a fifth year. That student would be finished in four years, and pay less for their education. However, NJIT has not produced the best graduation rates. While 86 percent of the most recent freshman class returned for their sophomore year, less than a quarter of the class that entered in 2009 finished in four years. But you do not get a four-year graduation rate from the College Scorecard. I had to look it up for you. Nor did you know why things happen the way they happen at all three schools. You have to ask the right people at the schools.
The College Scorecard also makes use of the infamous “net price.” What you need to know, in the case of this small sample of three schools is: how much more am I likely to pay to go to Stevens over the two state schools? And here lies another problem not solved by either the College Scorecard or the school: I cannot get the data on merit or need-based scholarships. If I knew the average I could make some kind of a guess. Better yet, if the schools put up a chart, or the College Scorecard shared the information, I would have the opportunity to make a good guess.
I appreciate the intentions of the College Scorecard. But there is so much information missing that is necessary to help families to make an informed decision. This is one time I actually side with the conservatives in Congress. Don’t waste money hoisting incomplete, and perceptually misleading, information on the American public.
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