4 Charts That Show What College Is Worth

4 Charts That Show What College Is Worth

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College Scorecard and its mountainous trove of data are ripe for providing insights about the value of a degree—if you can wade through it. We decided to dig into the data to see how colleges and programs stack up when it comes to earnings for recent grads and their pay-off later in graduates’ careers. And you can see how your favorite college or major stacks up as well with these four interactive charts.

Note that the colleges included in our analysis were identified as “main campuses” by College Scorecard, a resource provided by the U.S. Department of Education that went through some changes earlier this year. Earnings and student debt are based on the medians in each category, to curb the impact of outliers. Earnings are based on salaries of former students who received federal aid, and debt refers to federal loan debt.

Which Schools Pay Off?

Source: U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard

Two years after their students cross the stage at graduation—no matter the length of their degree program—schools specializing in medicine and technology report that their graduates are bringing in the highest earnings.

The Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia, a private nonprofit institution, reports the median salaries of its recent grads at more than $168,000. The bottom of the list is populated heavily by beauty and barber schools, with the Paul Mitchell School in Saint George, Utah, reporting its median grad salaries at a mere $7,500 two years after graduation.

Major Differences

Source: U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard

How do academic programs stack up against each other?

Two years after graduation, the median salary for newly-minted dentists comes in just shy of $200,000.

In fact, medical careers take the top six spots in the salary rankings, joined by a strong showing by engineering and technology programs. Though medical ethics and plastics engineers are not typically the kind of careers that kids shout out when asked during a third grade career day.

“Those are some of the ones that pay off, especially at the bachelor’s degree level and at the graduate degree level,” says Martin Van Der Werf of Georgetown University of tech and medical programs’ high rankings. He’s director of editorial and education policy at the university’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which released its own analysis of College Scorecard data earlier this year.

Ever heard of naval architects? Recent grads in that field are making a tidy salary of nearly $80,000. Van Der Werf thinks that’s not quite as surprising as it first seems. Maritime academies tend to have some of the highest payoffs.

“It’s a very niche kind of institution,” he says. “You wouldn’t have expected this, but you can get a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. There’s not a lot of people studying this, but they pay off really well.”

Cosmetology grads come in at the bottom of the list. But the lowest median salary goes to library and archives students, at not-quite $15,000.

While liberal arts programs hover around the middle of the rankings, Van Der Werf’s work has revealed that observers shouldn’t discount their students’ earnings down the road.

“I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction that liberal arts gives you a degree that doesn’t pay off in the marketplace,” he says. “We hypothesize that liberal arts grads go on to get graduate degrees … which tend to pay off greater than just undergrad degrees.”

Note that this data isn’t separated based on the programs’ degree level—associate, bachelor, graduate, etc.—unless specified in College Scorecard’s data (note “Graduate Medical Studies” in the third spot).

Taking a Long View

Source: U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard

Potential students are interested in how much return on investment they can reap from their degrees, and this chart takes a look at long-term pay off. It plots median student salaries 10 years after enrolling against the median amount of debt taken on by each school’s students.

One standout is Olin College of Engineering, a small private university in Massachusetts, where former bachelor’s students are making a median of nearly $133,000 10 years into their careers while taking on only about $16,000 in debt.

So during a time when student debt has become a crisis and the value of degrees is in question, how does Olin achieve this earnings-to-debt ratio?

One factor is that none of its roughly 350 students pay the full $80,000 tuition, says Emily Roper-Doten, the college’s dean of admission and financial aid. Incoming students receive an automatic merit scholarship of $57,000. After need-based aid comes into play, Roper-Doten posits that students may be left with only about $3,500 in annual loans.

Factoring in that Olin College students complete their degrees quickly—the school’s most recent four-year graduation rate is 97 percent—and its hands-on curriculum, Roper-Doten says students are set up to command high salaries and incur low debt.

“Olin was founded basically as an act of philanthropy,” she says. “We have the opportunity to counter some of the rising cost of education because we have the opportunity to be more endowment-driven than tuition-driven than our peers have to be.”

Drilling Down

Source: U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard

This scatter plot takes things a step further by drilling down into the debt and long-term earnings of colleges based on their academic programs. With programs broken out, it becomes more clear that medical and technology bachelor’s programs are yielding some of the highest median earnings 10 years down the road for students, while leaving grads with comparatively low student debt.

The center mass of the plot is made up of programs where students are earning $35,000 to $60,000 and that are issuing $17,500 to $27,000 in loans. The trend carries over when the data is switched to graduate degrees.

Van Der Werf recommended that prospective students look closely at what specific programs, rather than a general field of study, are yielding when it comes to salaries down the line. If a student is vaguely interested in health sciences, for example, he suggests researching what type of specialty would command the highest pay.

While the data show that a college degree gives students an earnings leg-up overall, he says, there can be no benefit from a degree if students don’t complete them.

“The issue is a lot of people start at college but don’t finish,” Van Der Werf says. “Make sure you’ve got the commitment, the finances to finish because if you don’t finish and you take out loans, you’re going to think the whole process wasn’t worth it in the end. Instead you’ll have more loans, more debt, more headaches.”

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