The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 6, 2017

Making college earnings data work for students

A version of this post was originally published as a part of Evidence Speaks, a series by the Brookings Institution.

State and federal policymakers have embraced the idea that prospective college students need better information on earnings outcomes for individual colleges and programs of study. One of the Obama administration’s signature higher education policy efforts was the College Scorecard, which provides information on median income after attending a given college. Several states have developed data systems that allow students to obtain this information for individual programs, such as the average earnings of business majors at a particular college.

These efforts are premised on the notion that better data will push institutions to compete in ways that increase quality and lower costs. But will these efforts work? There are reasons for skepticism. It is difficult to compare the outcomes of colleges and programs that enroll students with widely varying characteristics (especially academic preparation). Further, few experts agree on how to combine or synthesize different outcome measures. For these reasons, the Obama administration abandoned its original plan for “ratings” and replaced it with a “scorecard.”

Even if the measures were perfect, the potential for consumer information to change student decisionmaking may still be constrained: many students only consider institutions near where they live because of a desire or need to remain close to home (e.g., work or family obligations). In a new report we released last week, Choice Deserts: How Geography Limits the Potential Impact of Earnings Data on Higher Education, we empirically document how useful earnings data are likely to be to potential students comparing different institutions that offer the same program (e.g., a bachelor’s degree in business at Virginia Tech versus the University of Virginia).

We find that only 36 percent of Virginia high school seniors are likely to use program-level earnings data to make a meaningful distinction between programs of study at two or more institutions. Students’ college choices are constrained by their academic credentials, geographic location, and career interests. This is especially true for students only considering community colleges near where they live, of which only 4 percent can use earnings data to compare programs across colleges.

Comparing outcomes across institutions offering the same program is only one possible use of earnings data. Other uses include choosing among majors at a given institution or deciding whether to go to college at all, especially for students who only have one realistic option (e.g., the local community college).

Earnings data will only affect decisionmaking if students care about those data and can access and make sense of them. How should a student compare two programs with average earnings among graduates of $45,000 versus $50,000, but at institutions that have graduation rates of 70 percent versus 50 percent? And that’s if students can even find the data, as they are often buried in government websites, and efforts to make them more accessible often fall short.

Three recently developed online tools highlight the trade-offs inherent in trying to bring program-level earnings data to life for potential students. As part of our work in Virginia, we built GradpathVA, a website that allows students to easily compare graduates’ earnings for a given major at different institutions. Our site provides these earnings data alongside other institution-level information, such as net price by family income, years to degree, and admissions data.

We built our website to help students compare colleges offering a course of study in a given field to understand how much earnings data are useful for this purpose. We erred on the side of a simple presentation of information—focused on comparing earnings and prices within the selected field—which may not be useful for other purposes, such as comparing majors within a selected institution.

Other earnings data websites take a more comprehensive approach by generating a more complex interface. My Future TX, produced by the research group College Measures, allows Texas students to start from a preferred career, college, or major. The website walks potential students through selecting a list of colleges and majors and produces a personalized report with data on average earnings at selected schools 1 and 10 years after graduation.

Launch My Career Colorado is another College Measures website that provides a more graphical walk-through format. Once students have settled on a college and major, the site produces a return on investment calculation, customizable for a student’s “lifestyle goal.” This additional detail makes it more difficult to compare the same program across different institutions.

A challenge for creators of websites like these is helping users make sense of multiple factors, such as earnings, tuition prices, and graduation rates. GradpathVA provides these indicators and lets users decide how much importance to place on each, whereas the College Measures sites offer guidance on how to do this by reporting an overall measure of return on investment.

Helping families select an educational institution is not unique to higher education. Discussions about how to measure the quality of elementary and secondary schools and help parents choose a school for their children draw on many of the same themes discussed in this post. In both K–12 and higher education, better understanding how to make information accessible and useful to students and their families is necessary if the recent explosion in the availability of data on student outcomes is to improve American education.

University of Washington students walk on the campus between classes Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, in Seattle. Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP.


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