Report: Judging Colleges by How Much Recent Graduates Earn Is a Misleading Metric

When consumers search the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the results that come back are ranked by the average salary students make after attending. That’s just one example of the growing use and prominence of early-career earnings data in evaluating colleges.

But new research argues that the metric can be misleading, and that the amount of money that recent attendees make says more about the demographics of the students than it does about the quality of a college’s educational offerings. Ironically, judging a college based on the income of attendees may penalize the colleges that do the best job at lifting large numbers of students into higher social classes—those that, say, take first-generation college students and get them into well-paying careers, but in fields that are not incredibly lucrative.

That’s the conclusion of a new working paper by three researchers at the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT test, who analyzed the data used in the government’s College Scorecard. “Our findings indicate that consumers can easily draw misleading conclusions about institutional quality when using publicly available earnings data to compare institutions,” the authors wrote.

Put simply, just because a college reports that its graduates earn on average $93,500 (as Georgetown University claims), that doesn’t mean that simply attending the institution will land you a job with that salary. The actual outcome will involve many factors, including what major the student chooses.

“If you’re making a decision solely based on the College Scorecard, you’re probably placing too much weight on thinking the college is going to determine what my earnings potential will be,” said one of the paper’s authors, Zachary Mabel, in an interview with EdSurge. “Just throwing something on a website and expecting that people are going to know what’s appropriate in terms of using that in decision-making is doing a disservice to the audience.”

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy, worries that policymakers and parents are focusing too much on how much students will make right of college when making education decisions…. (continue reading)