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What is a college degree worth?

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A degree translates to higher income, but how much difference does it make which school you attend and what you major in?

By Landmark News Service

Virginia students and parents now have a new source of information about the potential economic value of a college degree.
It’s long been clear that higher education translates into higher income. But how much difference does it make which school you choose? And which major?
Potential answers to those questions are now available online.
A huge database that went online Oct. 4 reveals wages earned by recent Virginia college graduates, broken down by school and major.
A few samples of what you can learn:
• Psychology graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University make up the biggest single cohort of four-year bachelor’s degree recipients. There were 1,757 graduates from that program over the five-year period of 2006-10, and the median full-time wage 18 months after graduation was $27,527.
• Another large degree program, mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, is almost twice that lucrative. For graduates from 2006 to 2010, the median full-time wage 18 months later was $52,663.
• Two-year degrees can have as much or more earning potential as four-year degrees. For recipients of associate’s degrees in all occupational and technical fields at Tidewater Community College from 2006 to 2010, the median full-time wage after 18 months was $34,133.
• A few years in the workforce can make a big difference. English majors from the College of William and Mary who graduated between 2002 and 2006 earned a median wage of $27,343 after 18 months. That number jumped to $39,923 after five years.

The database is the result of a collaboration among five state agencies — the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Department of Education, the Virginia Employment Commission, the Virginia Community College System and the Virginia Information Technologies Agency — made possible by a $17 million federal grant.
There are limitations to the data. Several categories of graduates aren’t included. Developers of the database hope to expand it to include a broader slice of wage data, as well as information about how much college debt graduates are carrying.
But the information is “a fantastic start,” said Del. Chris Stolle, who carried the enabling legislation for the database in the 2012 General Assembly. The data will help Virginians make more informed choices about the substantial investment involved in a college education, Stolle said.
“I think in the long run it’s going to be a very good tool for universities and the state to use to see if we’re getting a good return on our investment,” he said.
The Virginia Longitudinal Data System displays graduates’ average and median wage levels for individual academic programs at each school.
The median is perhaps the most meaningful number, said Tod Massa, policy research director at the state education council. It represents the midpoint between the highest and lowest wages.
The database captures wage information for graduates of all public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education in Virginia since 2002 whose employers participate in the unemployment insurance program administered by the Virginia Employment Commission. That covers about 40 percent of graduates.
Excluded are those working out of state, attending graduate school, in the military or other federal government jobs, part-time workers and graduates of for-profit colleges. Also excluded: degree programs with fewer than 10 graduates a year.

In addition to those limitations, the database comes with caveats from its developers. The state council “strongly cautions reviewers not to use the short-term wage outcomes of recent graduates to measure the quality or long-term effectiveness of any of Virginia’s individual institutions,” according to a staff memo.
That reflects some anxiety among the colleges that the wage data will lead students and parents to make snap judgments about schools and programs.
Among them:
• Wages can be profoundly influenced by local economic conditions.
• A graduate’s college major is largely irrelevant in some occupations.
• Graduates’ career decisions are often based on factors other than the highest salary.
Nevertheless, “I think it’s the start of something that’s going to be very useful,” said Carol Simpson, provost at Old Dominion University. “As we get more years of data, it’s going to present a really clear picture of what a college education can provide.”
James Walke, assistant vice president for institutional research and planning at Norfolk State University, offered praise for the new database, tempered by a cautionary note: “My concern is that because we have these data readily available, some of the other important considerations in college choice will be glossed over.”
Size, for example.
“Is your student really comfortable in a class with 200 other students?” Walke said. “What’s really most important is whether or not the institution is a good fit for the particular student.”