College students looking to find reliable information on the value of their degree may find their job made easier by new legislation currently making its way through Congress: The Right to Know Before You Go Act.
A bill was recently introduced into committee by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that seeks to build on efforts at the state level to collect salary information of recent college graduates and link them together in a federal database, thus creating a national system for students to compare the average earnings of graduates across schools and majors.
The text of the bill states that “students have a right to know how long it will take them to complete their education, what their likelihood of completion is, how far that education will take them after graduation and at what cost.”
Assuming the states opted into this system, it would be possible for anyone to compare the average salaries of graduates from any school in the country five years after leaving campus. Students could then use this data when deciding what schools to apply to or what to major in once on campus.
In Tennessee for example, where a state-level system is currently in place, it is now possible to tell that someone who earns an associate’s in health at Dyersburg State Community College can expect to earn $5,000 more than someone earning a bachelor’s in that same field at the University of Tennessee.
In addition to Tennessee’s system, which only includes public institutions, Virginia and Arkansas have already published databases showing average starting salaries for all graduates of two and four-year schools in their states. Texas, Colorado and Nevada are all preparing their own versions to be published at some time this year.
The state databases suffer from serious limitations, however. They fail to include students who left the state after graduation, joined the military or federal government or went into graduate school. Different costs of living in different areas also has a tendency to skew salary data even further.
The proposed federal database would attempt to cut down on these problems by factoring in salary data of graduates who take jobs in a different state than the one they graduated in.
These efforts come at a time when many students are asking questions about the value of their degrees. The job market remains bleak for recent graduates. For the class of 2010, only 56 percent had found jobs by the next spring. In comparison, about 90 percent of the pre-recession classes of 2006 and 2007 were employed the same amount of time following their graduation.
Because of this, there has been a renewed focus nationwide on not just obtaining a college degree, but obtaining one that carries high earning potential. A report released in January from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce concluded that “Today’s best advice, then, is that high school students who can go on to college should do so — with one caveat. They should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal.”
Some have raised concerns that such a reductionist view, focused only on salary numbers, could end up hurting students. Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University in Virginia, told Inside Higher Ed, “A really great college education prepares students to enter into the workforce, but it also prepares them to think deeply about the world around them.”
Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University, echoed these concerns in comments to The Washington Post.
“My biggest fear is that people would rush to premature conclusions about the value of a particular degree. You sort of want a view that would have whole careers in mind. There’s more to a job than income,” he said.
The bill’s defenders argue that they are only providing information to help students make decisions, not telling them that money is all that matters when considering degrees.
“The cost of a four-year degree can now run north of $100,000 and students deserve to know before they matriculate what they can expect from their huge investment in money and time” Sen. Wyden said in a speech.
The bill was first introduced into committee last year but failed to move any further. This revised effort faces better prospects as Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, named the bill a legislative priority. It also has enough support from Democrats that Libby Nelson, writing for Inside Higher Ed, said that it “could become a rare point of accord between Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration.”