Eager to assess the value of a college education, a small but growing number of states are publishing databases comparing the earning power of degrees for recent graduates based on where they went to school.
Virginia and Arkansas this fall published user-friendly search tools showing average first-year salaries for recent graduates of two- and four-year colleges in their states. Tennessee has published a similar tool for its public institutions. Texas, Colorado and Nevada are preparing to release similar data early next year, and several other states are poised to follow.
One goal is to help prospective students plan for college. "When you're thinking about what school to go to, what major to specialize in and how much money to borrow, you really should have some firm idea of the likely outcome of your investment of time and money," says Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, a non-profit group that is working with several states to develop and publish the information.
The Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee databases, which link student records with state unemployment insurance wage data for graduates in the years 2006 through 2010, come with caveats, he notes. For example, they don't include salaries of graduates who left the state for jobs.
Even so, the information can bring into clearer focus how national trends play out locally, says Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. "When we can say, 'This is not hypothetical,' that goes a long way."
- In general, the more advanced the degree, the better the pay, but there are exceptions. In Arkansas, for example, starting salaries for recent recipients of bachelor's degree in registered nursing from Henderson State University, averaged $41,749; while those holding two-year degrees in that field from the University of Arkansas Community College-Batesville averaged $45,012.
- Geography matters. In Virginia, starting salaries for bachelor's degrees in business administration and management ranged from $27,850 at Ferrum College, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to $46,872 at the University of Richmond, located in the state capital. Debt levels also vary, federal data show: For 2011 graduates, debt averaged $9,313 for Ferrum graduates and $22,915 for Richmond grads.
- Undergraduate degrees in technical fields generally command higher starting salaries than those in the liberal arts. University of Memphis graduates with a bachelor's degree in the health professions earned the highest average salary, $59,570. Six philosophy and religious studies majors at Austin Peay State University averaged the lowest, $21,458.
- Nicole Hurd, founder of the non-profit National College Advising Corps calls the new data "very empowering" but urges families to plan beyond the immediate payoff. "A history major might not be in the top 10 if you look at wages for the first year," she says. "Are we counseling students for the long haul or the quickest way to relieve their college debt?"