Next month, Virginia will be the first state in the country to give the public data about whether college is worth it. The public database will show the median earnings for degree earners from every college in the state. People will be able to compare the starting salaries for English majors at various state universities. They also will be able to determine which degrees or certificates at a single institution yield the best wages after graduation. "Some of these findings aren't going to make people happy," said American Institutes for Research Vice President Mark Schneider, who is spearheading the Virginia project and cajoling several other states to follow suit. "People will find that an associate's degree in liberal arts is not a very valuable degree."
This is critical information that has long been missing from the higher education debate. The kind of data that will be available in Virginia will allow people to connect the dots from college graduation to employment. Those numbers are key to determining what you are actually getting with a post-secondary degree. College can fulfill many roles for kids, but if students don't come out with jobs at the end, it will become harder over time to argue that college is worth the student or taxpayer investment.
Yet many universities are reluctant to broadcast the job placement and earnings of their graduates. They fear, perhaps legitimately, that their degree programs will be judged unfairly because the employment outcomes of their students will fluctuate with the economy. Databases like the one on tap in Virginia also imply that there is, or should be, a direct link between a degree from a specific university and a job. That's a hard thing to ask colleges to be responsible for.
What is the value of looking at employment outcomes and salaries of graduates from various degree or certificate programs? What are the dangers? How can colleges put such data in context so that it isn't misread by the public? Should post-secondary institutions be judged based on employment outcomes of their graduates? What else should universities be judged on?