How NOT to Rate a College

This piece is cross-posted at National Education Insiders page in response to the following question from editor Fawn Johnson: What would we learn if a public dataset existed for all colleges in the United States that showed 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?

Plans like the one being put forward to rank colleges based on graduates’ average starting salaries by major make me want to holler: “Could we just stop and think about this for a moment?”

What does knowing the salary range of recent graduates really tell us about the quality of the schools they attended? I say schools because a university degree is simply the latest stop in a person’s educational career. Along with the foundational work in K-12, learning does not start or stop at the college campus. Besides that, many of today’s students attend more than one college—simultaneously. I have students at the community college who are also enrolled at other state universities, and taking courses from yet another institution online. Would it then be fair to assign the value of their earning power to only one of those institutions?

People who graduate from regional schools in areas such as Mississippi or Arkansas and choose to remain in those states to work are going to earn significantly less than peers with the same degrees from colleges in other parts of the country, regardless of the major. For that matter, someone who earns a degree from some Ivy League school and moves to Mississippi could expect to earn less than if she or he took a job somewhere else. I did. So have many others—by choice. And that was in relatively good economic times. Today, many college graduates are blessed to find a job at all, much less in their fields of study. Nor does such a criterion take into account those who choose an entrepreneurial path that may take several years after college (or only partial college) to realize. Many of them will work other, even minimum wage jobs, while working on their true goals.  As we look at the current and future workforce, we should also be realizing that more and more people are going to work multiple careers, sometimes concurrently.  Should we be pressuring our colleges to eliminate programs that lead to lower paying, but meaningful careers in order to enhance their standings?

More important, such criteria continue to tie the value of education to the dollar amount one can earn on a specific job.  As a parent, educator, and community youth worker, I have spent years counseling young people to choose their life’s work based on a higher calling, on their actual interests, talents, gifts, and passions; then learn how to make a career out of what they love. Likewise, I have advised many students against trying to pursue a career based solely on how much money they hoped to make when it became clear that they were headed in the wrong direction.

As I have told my own children, “You go to college to get the knowledge.”  Rather than look at what students are earning after graduation, wouldn’t it be wiser both economically and morally to consider what they are doing with their learning?  How are they using their educational experiences not only for personal success, but also for the greater good? That would mean looking beyond the job title and considering other areas in which we use our college education, for example, are they informed, participatory citizens?

I wrote last time about my impressions of the overall plan, especially what it appears the proposed scale might mean for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Thankfully, the President’s plan is still in its early stages, and there is time for much more thought and better design before it goes anywhere near implementation.

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  • SusanGraham

    Anticipated and Unforeseen Consequences

    I’m wondering whether this could provide any leverage for university Colleges of Education?

    If program completion is a factor and COE candidates have passed gateways for content knowledge and GPA and are usually in their junior year, would they have a comparatively higher success rate than other programs? 

    If so, would that increase their status wwith their academic community?

    If graduate esrnings are a factor and if teachers eaen less than their peers in terms of education, is that a potential problem for th COE?

    Since teacher salaries are determined by formula rather than performance, is this a accurate measure? 

    If the push to evaluate COE effectiveness based on  P-12 student achievement continues, does that hold COEs to a higher level of accountability than Arts and Sciences or Business? 

    What are the possible unforeseen consequences, positive or negative? 



  • ReneeMoore

    Need to Tread Softly

    Your questions are a great example of why this plan really needs some close scrutiny before it is rushed into policy.

    It is not clear that individual programs within a college would be rated separately; although, that certainly makes sense. There is currently an issue with COE’s about access. For example, at many schools, passing the initial parts of the PRAXIS or other exams determine who gets counted as being enrolled in the education program and who gets to do student teaching. This is where issues of access, especially for Black and Latino candidates has been a problem. 

    I’m also thinking about smaller regional colleges, or HBCUs, where the College of Education is one of the largest program, since many of these schools started as teachers’ colleges. Since teachers’ salaries are notoriously low, especially starting pay, what would that mean under the proposed rating scale?

    Keep thinking and asking.  White House announcement said there would be an opportunity for public comments, so these are some that need to be passed along.

  • marsharatzel

    Interesting ideas

    I think you raised some excellent points.

    For me as a mom who has just finished putting 3 children through college and graduate schools, I have other questions.  The whole idea of college really changed as money dried up, it got harder for me to work those extra jobs to pay for their college and the price of the tuiton soared.

    When one of my children wanted to go to medical school, we really had to cross it off the list because of the expense involved.   The staggering amount of debt that one would owe is mind-boggling and we couldn’t see how she would ever be able to start a life after school.

    In a similar vein, another one of my children earned a master’s degree at a university that was almost $60,000.  We decided he should go because he loved the learning so much and it was a place he’d always dreamed of going.  Was it worth it?  I can tell you he learned more about his content area, met the most amazing set of professors and students that blew his mind and open intellectual frontiers for him….so from the learning perspective, yes!  But I borrow $30,000 and he borrowed $30,000 to do it. 

    I’m really not sure where I fall on if it was worth $30,000 to me and the opportunity cost to retire a year or two earlier (assuming I could have saved up that money instead of spedning).  And then to realize that the jobs he could get with this extra learning were drying up faster in the economic collapse faster than he could graduate.  He just took a new job in a completely unrelated field after 3 years of looking and looking and looking in his chosen field. 

    Yet he feels like even the training he received in his philosophy major helped him study more intensely and be more capable of grasping the larger framework of the financial planning tests that he had to pass for his new job.

    I’m all for learning for learning sake.  But my feeling is that the prices of tutition have become so high that only the very rich or the students who get full ride scholarships have the luxury of not considering what their education will do for them getting a job after college. 


  • ReneeMoore

    Costly for the Wrong Reasons?

    I feel you on this issue, Marsha. We have wrestled with student loan debt for ourselves and our children, and have had to make similar hard choices about our children’s futures.

    My question, however, is whether the tuitions and the loans should even be so astronomical in the first place? Does it really cost this much for the education universities and colleges are trying to provide? How much of those tuition/fee charges are, frankly, unnecessary expenses being foisted on students and their families? What about the loans? The college textbook industry is, from what I can see, one big racket. Why is there such a glaring difference in what four-year colleges charge when compared to each other and to community colleges? Many college courses are now taught by underpaid adjuncts who receive little or no benefits. A huge part of college costs for my own children were locked up in the dorm costs–many of which I questioned at the time and now.

    All I’m saying is, it’s probably well-past time for us to look at how college education is delivered in this age, since the basic model was designed many centuries ago.

  • MuhammadFoxx

    How TO Rate a College

    About the students who choose the program only because of the amount of money the will earn when the will graduate or how much college writing they should do. Well, a lot of students do so because they need at least one reference point in their future education process. And the cause of it is the lack of communication between the professors and students that don't give more information or have no presentation skills that can help students to choose and have at least some fun while graduating. And this is a parameter you can rate a college with!