President Obama landed on some sweet talking points in his recent, somewhat rehashed, proposals to make colleges more affordable and more targeted on graduation and employment. "Higher education should not be a luxury," Obama said in Syracuse, N.Y. "If a higher education is still the best ticket to upward mobility in America--and it is--then we've got to make sure it's within reach."
What's not to like?
The president has some interesting ideas if he can pull them off. He wants to rank colleges such that they score higher when they are cheaper, their students actually complete their programs, and—this part is key—the graduates then become gainfully employed. Then he wants to give more federal aid to schools with higher rankings, which would require the approval of Congress. According to the New America Foundation, the system would truly be a game changer if those rankings could be determined using data gathered from individual students. That also would require congressional approval, so it's not likely to happen.
Sausage-making woes aside, here's the problem: The kind of data that illuminates the true value of college could be really, really uncomfortable for Ivory Tower admirers. A new report from an independent data gathering group College Measures outlines some radical findings based on its student-level data on graduates' starting salaries salaries and their education costs:
"Science Majors Are Oversold,"
"What You Study Matters More Than Where You Study", and
"A Two-Year Degree Can Be Worth as Much as a Four-Year Degree."
College Measure President Mark Schneider has been going state to state collecting data from state schools on their graduates' earnings and the cost of their education. It's like pulling teeth, Schneider says, but the slog is important because students should know what they can expect, salary-wise, before they and their parents shell out $50,000 to $200,000 or more, for college.
Here's one surprising fact from Schneider's work: Biology majors don't make any more money than Sociology and Psychology majors when they graduate, about $30,000 annually.
Here's another: First-year earnings of for graduates of two-year technical associates' programs are higher than those with four-year bachelor's degrees.
What other surprises would we find if a public dataset existed for all colleges that broke down tuition costs and graduates' average starting salaries by major? Is it fair to rank colleges using such data? Is there a better way to gauge the value of college? If so, how could it be implemented? What are the political or institutional forces that would get in the way? What are the chances that Obama's proposals will come to anything other than another Web site with more confusing college rankings? How can a new ranking system encourage colleges to lower tuition rates?