Amidst much fanfare, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has released an upgraded version of its College Scorecard, providing, among other things, earnings and student debt data for nearly every college in the United States by major field of study. The effort to construct this began years ago in the Obama Administration, so its long-awaited release is welcome—sort of. I am severely disappointed with the new Scorecard on four grounds.
First, as Max Strohm, an Ohio University student reviewing the new Scorecard said, “I found it to not be very user friendly at all.” I asked Max and two other students to look up some earnings and student debt information on economics and English graduates at Harvard University and Ohio University, and tell me how long it took them to find the results. The average time it took to find this modest amount of information was ten minutes and 25 seconds, and no one could figure out how to get it in less than seven and one-half minutes. I, being more than thrice the age of the students, stumbled on the information after a seeming eternity.
Second, one crucial piece of information is disguised: the average earnings of all students attending each college. For example, the “salary after completing” the University of Nebraska at Lincoln is $23k-71K. That range is so wide that it gives no real indication of what a typical median or average student earns. The old Scorecard at least provided this information. Ideally, what the DOE should have reported is BOTH average earnings for all students and the range for different majors.
Third, the data include only students receiving federal financial aid. At some schools, that includes most students, but there are some elite colleges where many students from wealthy families do not even apply for aid. Almost certainly this works to understate earnings at those colleges relative to those where students come from more modest family circumstances. I think the reported average economics earnings at Ohio University are at least 20% too low. To be fair to the DOE, they do not have information on the earnings of those not applying for financial aid (on privacy grounds.) I have long argued that colleges should be required to send the social security numbers of ALL students to the IRS, who should be required to provide average earnings and some other data (earnings for the top and bottom quartile of students, for example) to the DOE for public access.
Fourth, there is a lot of incomplete information. The DOE will not publish average earnings where there are a small number of students majoring in a subject, encompassing many students, particularly at schools with relatively small enrollments. And there are other issues—many students have two majors, for example. At my university, there is both a standard liberal arts-oriented economics major as well as a second business economics major. The data reported earnings for the first group of students but not the second.
With all these caveats, there are still some useful insights. Let’s return to my quest for information on economics and English majors at Harvard and Ohio University. Economics majors at Harvard earn on average more than double their English major counterparts—$78,800 vs. $37,300. Indeed, the Harvard English majors make little more than those specializing in economics at Ohio University. At Ohio University, the English majors allegedly average less than $20,000 a year, less than their student loan debt—and less than what a full-time new high school graduate would make annually at, say, Walmart. The earnings data do explain in large part why enrollment in the humanities is plummeting. The modern economy, rightly or wrongly, does not evaluate the skills and learning associated with degrees in foreign languages, English, history, art, etc. as much as they do students with, say, engineering, math, or accounting degrees. I suspect employers looking for skilled workers would benefit by hiring low-cost humanities graduates and giving them some on-the-job training, since they on average have good critical thinking skills and writing abilities.
I give the DOE a C- on its College Scorecard. Let’s try to make it easier and more valuable to use.