Why salary is a bad way to judge higher education’s success

The Obama administration has released a new College Scorecard web page that provides some additional data not previously available. The Scorecard takes the place of the Department of Education’s failed rating plan that largely collapsed under its own weight, the objections of college leaders, and Congressional leaders from both parties. Unfortunately, the new web page continues the administration’s higher education policy and rhetoric focusing on the economic importance of higher education.  To that end, the new system provides information regarding the income of students six and ten years after they enrolled in higher education.  In today’s post, I will discuss why salary is a bad way to judge higher education’s success.

Photo credit: Thomas Galvez

I object to the salary measure on both philosophical and practical grounds.  

The salary measurement emphasizes one aspect of higher education over others.  The social benefits of higher education are not included.

Do students vote more?  Do they volunteer more?  Do they give to charity more?

These are important societal benefits, but an emphasis on salary completely ignores these aspects.

Furthermore, the Obama administration’s continued focus on economic and employment benefits continues the destructive narrative about higher education.

If a student graduates from a university and gets a job teaching first grade, I would call that a success.  Do we think that graduate’s salary will look good for the college?  I doubt it.

I get why the administration wants to include earnings.

Salary numbers are sexy.

Moreover, students are taking out debt and should have a reasonable expectation for a return on that economic investment.

The problem I have with the obsessive focus on salaries is that it forces everyone from students to colleges to policy makers to double down on the economic and private benefits of higher education.

Higher education is about more than making a high income.  The focus on salaries devalues the significant work of universities that may not directly relate to future earnings.

As everyone focuses on the economic advantages, policy makers start asking why the public should fund an individual pursuing higher education to gain a bigger salary.

This is a reasonable question:  what is the public benefit of higher salaries?  Sure, there will be higher taxes paid, but this is a small advantage in light of competing policy interests.

Instead, the reason the public should support higher education is about all those societal benefits that measures such as salary completely ignore.  Without the public benefits of higher education, funding from state and federal sources will decline.  College prices will rise along with student debt.  And we will have to focus even more on the economic benefits of higher education.

This is the destructive cycle that President Obama, Secretary Duncan, and the rest of the administration have shown little interest in stopping.

Problems with salary data

Beyond my philosophical objections, there are significant problems with the salary data used in the new College Scorecard.  For starters, the system:

1.  Fails to account for differences in major/field of study.

2.  Fails to account for differences in occupation.

3.  Fails to account for differences in geography.

4.  Fails to account for differences in privilege.

5.  Fails to account for all students.

6.  Fails to account for the social benefits of higher education.

7.  Fails to account for college inputs such as academic and financial circumstances.

8.  Fails to account for changes in the economy.

Even if you believe that salary is a reasonable measure to judge a college’s success, the new College Scorecard leaves much room to improvement. The limited earnings data that the system relies on presents students with an incomplete picture at best and a deceptive one at worst.

Perhaps the only saving grace here is that the system will not be widely used by most parents and students.

There is a valuable role for the federal government to play in helping students make an informed higher education decision. In the future, I hope the administration will embrace all of the aspects of higher education and not just the economic advantages.  Because in the end, salary is a bad way to judge higher education’s success.