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Future Earnings Over Prestige: A New Measuring Stick for Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Future Earnings Over Prestige: A New Measuring Stick for Higher Education
A ranking system that focuses on earning potential is critical as part of the college selection process but should not be the only factor taken into account.

Students today are behaving more like customers than ever before, putting institutions into a position where maximizing every possible differentiator is a high priority. Rankings have risen towards the top of the list of differentiating factors for institutions, but do these rankings take into account the priorities of today’s students? In this interview, Anthony Carnevale reflects on a rankings report released by the Center on Education and the Workforce that ranks institutions based on the future earnings of their graduates, and shares his thoughts on the importance of this approach to sharing critical consumer information.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant issues with the standard approach to university rankings taken by publications like US World and News and the Times Higher Education?

Anthony Carnevale (AC): In many cases these are actually very well done. In many respects, they’re more well done than what we did in the sense that they cover a lot of variables, everything from lifestyle choices to clubs available, quality of the gyms and the rooms and that sort of thing. They offer a lot of consumer information.

What we did is more analytic and much more focused, which was our principle concern. What kind of job will you get? Will you get a job? What kind of job are you going to get? How much money are you going to earn? We came at this from a purely economic perspective, that’s the difference.

One of the issues with a lot of the more complicated rankings systems is that they don’t tend to single these things out. We know that for 80 percent of students, the primary reason they’re going to college is to launch a career, so their interest in earning and employment is very high. We’re simply focusing there.

Evo: What are the factors you and your colleagues highlighted in the rankings to try to exemplify these opportunities after graduation?

AC: We looked at earnings, plain and simple. We asked questions like, “Were you employed? Did you make money? How much did you make?” and then arranged that information by college.

But then that raises questions immediately. For example, if you went to MIT you were likely to be a STEM major, and STEM majors make more money than other majors in general. So we did statistical controls for the distribution of majors within the schools. Basically, we said, “If you take away the additional effects of the majors, which schools end up being more highly ranked?”

Then, the third question that arose was around where success stems from, especially in the social sciences. “When you do this well, isn’t it the students not the school?” So we controlled for the students through their test scores, their family income, their parental education and revised the rankings again based on these factors.

In the end, what was probably the most significant finding is it doesn’t change the rankings that much. That is, schools that tend to produce higher-earning graduates tend to do so regardless of majors available or student body distribution. Though these factors do matter, there is such a thing as a “good school” from an economic perspective and that’s what we found. When when you control for these other effects, a lot of the schools that ranked high in any one dimension end up being ranked high in all three.

Evo: Why did you decide that it was so important to develop a ranking system that was exclusively focused on employment outcomes?

AC: We thought it was important to develop a ranking system focused on employment outcomes because the decision to pick a particular college is very complicated for many students. It has to do with all sorts of things: their career interests, their ideal earnings after graduation. But that’s the focus of our work—the relationship between the colleges, college majors and careers. We’re not in the business of doing rankings and selling rankings. We stripped away all the other variables and said, “From a career perspective, here’s what the rankings look like.”

In the largest sense what we were doing was more research intensive than what U.S. News and other rankings organizations like that do, because they’re actually trying to build the tool to give to students and parents to look through a number of dimensions associated with a particular school or all the schools. They allow students to make a choice based on lots of different kinds of characteristics from the presence of a climbing wall to whether there’s a high graduation rate to whether people find work after graduation.

Evo: How do you hope that these rankings will change the way those part time student and those working students explore their postsecondary options?

AC: In the final analysis of Learning While Earning: The New Normal, we found that students at all colleges are working. There was a bias going in that we would find that people at less selective colleges and people from lower-income families worked more, which they do, but not that much more. What we found was that even affluent students who go to very selective and expensive schools work. Only 30 percent of students don’t work and don’t take out loans.

Then what we found was, in the more selective schools, students tend to be working in positions related to their field of study so the learning they gained on the job had a positive effect on their education and was related to what the students were interested in, career-wise. In the less selective schools, however, students took jobs that help to pay the bills. A student might be majoring in healthcare, for example, but working at McDonalds whereas at a more selective school they may be in a nursing program and working at a hospital. Alignment between field of study and work while enrolled has very powerful positive effect on both the educational outcomes and in the labor market, in terms of leading to faster career progression and higher early-stage earnings.

When students are in situations where the working is less likely to be aligned with their field of study and career interest, it can be harmful because it takes away from “learning” time and becomes exclusively “earning” time. The ideal case is when learning and earning are aligned.

Evo: What impact do you hope it’s going to have over the long term in helping students select their colleges in terms of creating an additional factor in the search process?

AC: I think this ranking list is one among many factors I would consider if I were advising a student or if I were a prospective student. I don’t think a student’s entire college decision should come down to future earnings alone. Choosing a college is a complicated decision with a huge range of factors to take into consideration, including location, academic focus and so many other things.

What we did is interesting and useful, but it should be used in conjunction with lots of other information to make those kinds of decisions. Whether or not a degree from a certain institution will get you a good job is part of it—and we think it should be a more important part of it than it is right now in those decisions, which the public agrees with—but it’s not everything.

Evo: How do you hope to see the earnings information that you guys have found folded into other larger more comprehensive ranking systems?

AC: Earnings information will be taken into account in the future. That is, the system that is emerging will take about five years to be finally pulled together. This focus on earnings is happening more among key stakeholders like prospective students, their families and the federal and state governments. It’s not being reflected by the U.S. News rankings. The federal government and state governments are putting more than $700 million into building information systems that show earnings by field of study in schools. After all, field of study is just as important as the school in determining career prospects, and that data will be increasingly available in the next several years.

Right now employment information is administrative data and it’s still internal to the education system and state governments. I think the federal government will mandate the use of it sometime in the next five years so that students can be more informed about the choices they make from an economic perspective.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about the ranking system that you and your team have developed and the impact that you think it will have over the long term?

AC: I think it’s part of a conversation that is becoming much more central in American higher education. There is bipartisan agreement in Washington DC that we need to have this consumer information available to students and state governors seem to agree as well. It’s coming, but it’s going to take a while because nothing happens overnight and there is some complexity in this. Data always introduces complex questions and it takes a while to get them resolved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Please click here to download Georgetown CEW’s report, Ranking Your College: Where You Go and What You Make.

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