How NOT to Rate a College

This piece is cross-posted at National Journal.com 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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