Last week, Capella University President Scott Kinney wrote a piece in Inside Higher Education encouraging the U.S. Education Department to make available data it collected initially for the now much-in-doubt gainful employment regulation that would allow universities to examine the earnings data of their graduates by degree area. A few weeks before, the Washington Post ran a story on how Virginia and other states around the country have begun to develop detailed databases that allow students, families, and policymakers to examine first-year earnings across different types of degree programs, and compare results for similar degree programs at different universities.
In on-going policy efforts to make colleges and universities more accountable, earnings data have become all the rage. For example, experts like Tony Carnevale at Georgetown University have demonstrated that many sub-baccalaureate certificates yield greater earnings than comparable associate’s degrees, which cost more money and take longer to complete. This is important information for students who should be able to see what their earnings potential is before they enroll and incur debt in many instances to finance their education. But should we really hold an institution of higher education accountable for the fact some careers are more remunerative than others?
Take for example a student receiving a master’s degree in education*. The teacher is already working in education in most instances when she enrolls. When she graduates, her freshly-minted master’s degree may allow the teacher to move up the salary ladder in her district. But that salary growth is likely to be limited and not related to what institution the teacher attended. Pay increases are still determined largely by district salary ladders. Other relatively lower-paying professions where we still need high-quality professionals include mental health, social work, and early childhood education.
My point is not to defend how school districts compensate teachers, or to apologize for colleges that continue to raise prices while offering degrees of dubious value to their students. But it is to say that federal and state policymakers should have a limited number of measures by which they hold all colleges and universities accountable, and those metrics should be in areas where colleges can control the variables that influence these measures. So while a college cannot control the income of its graduates, it can price academic programs accordingly, in part based on the income graduates are likely to realize. This is why measures like cohort default rates are so important, and why they need to be improved.
In our desire to ensure that students (and taxpayers) receive value from their investment in higher education, and that colleges are held more accountable for results, we should be judicious about the types of measures that we employ. Many criticized the federal gainful employment rule because it targeted only one sector of higher education. But tying income data to ANY college’s performance, even in the current policy environment that is rightfully sensitive to cost and quality, has limitations that we appear too unwilling to acknowledge.
*Full disclosure, I work primarily for Walden University’s school of education so the profile I describe here could fit many of our students
Photo Credit: Flickr user John Walker