Ranking Colleges by Student Earnings Doesn't Make the Grade

10/03/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2013

President Obama's proposals to rein in college costs -- making higher education more affordable and schools more accountable -- has some interesting and innovative ideas, but one of the planks of his plan is cause for concern to many college presidents like me.

Taken together, his proposals, unveiled in late August, would rate colleges on things like tuition, the percentage of minority students, graduation rates and earnings of recent graduates.

While preparing students for successful careers is part of our mission, the notion of ranking schools by earnings' of new graduates creates a major problem for educators. Employment is important, but the ranking should not be based on those who turn out engineers and investment bankers as opposed to those who produce teachers or social workers or students who want to do community service which may not pay relatively well.

The idea has generated a plethora of lists and charts that show the salary potential by college majors or actual starting salaries. Engineering -- petroleum, aerospace, chemical and nuclear -- top the field, according to Starting pay in those fields range from $66,800 to $98,000. Computer science and business also rank near the top of most of the lists.

But about the student whose passion is teaching or social work, where starting salaries can be in the low-$30,000 range in some parts of the country?

As educators, our responsibility is to guide students as they consider their options. We must tell them they should balance their desire to earn top salaries, with their passion for a particular field, such as teaching or social work or social services. This is something we must do one-on-one as much as possible through faculty advisors and college career centers.

To do this, it is important that we provide data for students on salaries and job satisfaction and remind them that going into a field that pays well just for the sake of making more money does not necessarily lead to happiness or job satisfaction.

A 2010 study by the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University found that the desire to make more money was stronger among people earning below $75,000, as compared to those earning more than $75,000 a year. The study, which surveyed 450,000 people, found that "emotional well-being and life evaluation" often depend on circumstances in a person's life. "Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States, however, higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals' life evaluations."

The researchers cautioned that the study "does not imply that a financial increase will not improve the quality of life, but suggests that above a certain income level, people's emotional well-being is constrained by other factors, such as temperament and life circumstances ...The take home message of the study is that high incomes don't bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life that you think is better."

With that in mind, we must urge students to determine what is most important to them and follow those feelings.

What we must not do, is create a ranking system that punishes colleges that turn out students who want to teach or serve society, rather than simply make more money. We in the higher education community should resist efforts by outsiders to rank colleges and universities by what our students go on to earn in life as they pursue their desires.

Dr. Kadish is president and CEO of the Touro College and University System