10/08/2013 06:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Alumni Salaries Matter and Why Some Colleges Wish They Didn't


A college education isn't just about the money -- how much it costs and what you can earn post-graduation -- because the value of education can't be measured in dollars and cents.

I hear that argument every year when we, here at PayScale, roll out our annual College Salary Report, featured in James Stewart's recent column in the New York Times titled "New Metric for Colleges: Graduates' Salaries," and again when we launch our annual College ROI Rankings in the spring. I agree that education helps to broaden perspectives in a way that's difficult to quantify, yet every college in the U.S. has managed to do just that by attaching a price tag to the education they offer their students. And, that price has risen dramatically in the last decade or so.

Colleges Place a Value on Education but Don't Want You To

"Between 2000-01 and 2010-11, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and prices at private, not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation," according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As long as attending college costs money (and a lot of money, in many cases, even after financial aid is considered), students have a right to expect their school to prepare them to earn a decent living in their chosen field.

"I'm not against people making a living or prospering," Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times. "But if the objective of an education is to 'know yourself,' it's going to be hard to measure that."

So, what's the solution? Measure nothing and continue to see our college graduates move back home with their parents after school under a mountain of student-loan debt? Know yourself? How about support yourself? I'm certain that's a primary objective for many students who choose to attend college.

If the main outcome of a college education is simply to elevate your thinking and gain a broader perspective on the world, why not spend far less money traveling and exploring different cultures rather than sitting in a classroom for at least four years and listening to a professor lecture about the world you could be out experiencing?

Personally, I loved my college experience. I learned a lot from both my professors and my fellow students, made lifelong friends and walked out of the hallowed halls of my local state university with a bachelor's degree in my hand. But no one asked me to truly consider what I would be able to earn after graduating with my print journalism degree. No one in the administration, career center or financial-aid office talked to me about how long it might take to pay off my student loans with the annual salary of a newspaper reporter. I didn't even know what I should expect to earn until I received my first job offer ($28,000/year in 1998). And no one at my high school asked me to consider which journalism school might be my best bet for reaching the highest earning potential within the field. I might have made the same choices, but I had a right to know the answers to these questions before I chose my school, major and career path.

"Salary" Is Not a Dirty Word

Apparently, examining post-graduation salaries somehow "debase[s] the whole mission of higher learning." That's according to Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, in an opinion piece she wrote for The Huffington Post.

How crass to ask colleges to justify the increasing cost of a degree by holding them somewhat accountable for the success of their alumni. Should success be defined only in monetary terms? Absolutely not. Should it be part of the equation? Yes. Higher education can only function as an instrument of change in our society if the educated have the time and opportunity to help solve some of the world's problems rather than worrying about how to make ends meet and pay off their often massive student-loan debt.

PayScale's College Salary Report isn't designed to replace other college rankings or to encourage anyone to consider salary as the only metric when evaluating the value of higher education. But the income potential of college graduates can't be ignored any longer. If it is, it's to the detriment of future graduates who aren't asked to consider some of the hard financial questions they will face once they don their cap and gown.

Struggling financially is not a badge of honor. It only becomes so when looking back at it from the safe distance of financial security later in life (if you're lucky). Ask any recent graduate who has discovered their degree not only doesn't guarantee them a job in the field they studied, but may only qualify them for a job at their local fast-food joint.

According to the Associated Press in an article published in April 2012, "About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 last year [2011] were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years."

McGuire adds:

Upward mobility, intellectual refinement, social connections and the promise of a much better life -- these were all of the reasons why my parents and so many others who, themselves, did not go to college insisted that their children must do so. They understood, without question, that college was the route to a kind of success that they also aspired to attain, but that was often just beyond their grasp. They did not want us to struggle to get ahead the way they had to struggle.

I'm not sure how McGuire would define "get ahead," but I'd guess that her parents, and so many others who hoped college could provide a better future for their children, would include financial security as part of the definition.

Why Can't We Serve Society and Be Financially Secure?

"And when the world has no more philosophers, writers, artists, poets, psychologists, social workers, counselors, teachers, nurses and public interest lawyers, what kind of society will we have then?" McGuire asks.

You're underestimating the younger generation if you think they're all going to choose the highest paying career, with no other considerations, simply because post-graduation salary data is made available to them. I have more faith that students will continue to pursue degrees in education, social work, art and philosophy. And that's also why, in addition to graduate earnings, PayScale included the percentage of alumni reporting high job -- meaning both by school and by major in the report. The top of our "Majors That Change the World" list is dominated by majors related to healthcare, education and social work. Schools with large healthcare and education programs also are represented well when looking at the percentage of alumni reporting high job meaning post-graduation. The top three schools for high job meaning were Thomas Jefferson University (84 percent), University of New England (82 percent) and Trident University International (81 percent).

We also drill into the earnings data a bit more deeply and provide a look at the best schools for a particular major (ranked by earning potential). If you're going to study art or English, which schools set you up best for financial success within that field? Does being an artist require that you starve?

PayScale's College Salary Report was targeted specifically at prospective college students who plan to complete only a four-year degree. Why? Because the majority of college graduates do not go on to pursue a graduate degree. Only one-third of Americans who are 25 or older and hold at least a bachelor's degree have a graduate degree as well. And, for those who do, evaluating how much of an impact your undergraduate versus your graduate institution has on your career success is a difficult undertaking. It's one we'd be willing to pursue, but it wasn't the aim of this particular report. We are glad, however, that our data has generated this much discussion. It's a discussion worth having. And, if President Obama comes knocking and asks about graduate earnings for inclusion in his new College Scorecard, we have a much deeper database to dive into to address that specific request. We can look at higher degrees. We can evaluate majors across schools. The College Salary Report is just scratching the surface.