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Editor's note: This article was first published by McClatchy.
We have all heard that college is one of the best investments a person can make. Most of us have probably heard that a bachelor’s degree is worth a million dollars in added lifetime earnings compared with a high school degree. And we have undoubtedly heard that a college degree is a ticket to a better job or a better career.
But we are also aware that today’s graduates struggle to find jobs and are in such serious debt that they can’t launch their lives. Recent graduates often wonder whether the money and the time spent on college was worthwhile. Meanwhile, employers across the nation are having difficulty filling millions of open jobs because of a mismatch in the skills students have and the skills employers need. As a result, we have people without jobs and jobs without people.
Discussions about the value of college need to focus on identifying the paths that enable students to make informed postsecondary choices that lead to well-paying careers and meaningful lives. This means choosing the right college, the right degree, and the right major.
Students face high-stakes challenges. While they have every right to pursue their passions, they should also have information to see what their future might look like if they do. For example, what kind of life could they support financially if they major in early childhood education? What about English or psychology? How do those options compare with math or biology? And is there any difference if students graduate with biology degrees from one college compared with another?
Unfortunately, we can’t predict the future. But data reveal a lot about what is likely to happen in the labor market after graduation. And data are especially valuable if they reveal how prior graduates of specific programs at different colleges are faring in the marketplace. We may end up with a lot fewer anthropology majors, but we may find ourselves with more employed individuals who are happy with their professional and personal lives.
Consider some concrete state data from the work College Measures has been conducting.
In Texas, 10 years after completing their studies, students who earned master’s degrees in music, fine arts, or English have lower median earnings than the average student with an associate’s degree—and an average annual wage that is about half that of a student with an associate’s degree in electromechanical maintenance.
In Tennessee, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, one of the most common majors in the state, makes around $40,000 a year less, on average, than a bachelor’s graduate in computer engineering or electrical engineering.
In Colorado, a student from the Community College of Aurora with a certificate in fire protection, which takes less than one year to complete, can expect to earn $865,000 more over his or her work life compared with a high school graduate.
One pattern is evident even in this small set of examples—there are many associate degree programs, especially those that teach technical skills, which have a very high payoff.
But what’s the point of having a well-paying job if the work makes you miserable? Gallup polls graduates in the workforce to gauge their job satisfaction and engagement in their communities. It found that there are no differences in the level of satisfaction of associate’s graduates compared with bachelor’s graduates.
Yes, college can be a difficult choice. Students often make choices because of friends, sports, or location. They also may choose the most prestigious school because they think it guarantees better postgraduation outcomes. But truthfully, it does not always work out that way. Students, and the increasingly large adult learner community, may find themselves spending less on a degree that will pay more dividends in the long run.
And all those who are thinking about making this financial — and time — commitment have a right to know if their selected pathway ends in the kind of life they envision both financially and emotionally.
At a minimum, information about outcomes needs to be in front of all students as they consider one of the most consequential decisions of their lives.
College Measures, Gallup, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation — with support from USA Funds as part of its College Value initiative — are releasing state-based consumer information tools that focus on the return on investment (ROI) students can expect as a result of their college choices. The first tool, specifically made for Coloradans, is available at www.LaunchMyCareerColorado.org.