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Bill to Publish Salaries of College Grads: What the What?


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Sens. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) are expected to reintroduce this week legislation that would require states to make more accessible the average salaries of colleges' graduates. The figures could help prospective students compare salaries by college and major to assess the best return on their investment.

 

Although I gather this will affect undergraduates, it still says a lot about how the US is choosing to perceive and deal with higher education. I find this highly disturbing for many reasons... the least of which is the complete backwardness of "introducing some market forces into the academic arena."

 

Not to mention the fact that the statistics won't include grads who moved out of state, work for the US government or are self-employed. I can imagine this is probably hurting the brains of the statisticians among us right now.

 

Read the rest here.

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The new governor of NC is looking into connecting jobs with college courses (insane!).  The idea was basically why are our liberal arts colleges offering courses where you can't get good jobs in the field,.... to which I kept thinking that there are not going to be statistically significant linkages to specific college courses, nor is that a proper way to decide what courses are offered anyway.  I keep hoping the governor will back off and realize what he is talking about is VOCATIONAL school, where if you major in "plumbing" and don't get a job as a plumber, THAT'S where the connection is to be made.  And of course all of the other variables like "I got a different job" or "I couldn't be a plumber in my city right after school so I waited for the job to open up and got another job in the meantime."  Rant stopping now... 

 

There is a lot of pressure from higher ed institutions in NC on this issue right now and for now, it seems like the governor's office has publicly backed off from this issue.. hopefully the governor remembered his own liberal arts degree and how a versatile graduate can be employable in several different arenas of work! :-) 

 

Okay last thought, I promise... the US bureau of labor statistics is a GREAT way to get a feel for average salaries in a LOT of different fields ... if they really want to get into the ROI research... 

Edited by kcald716
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I don't know...I think in some respects it would wash away some of these fairy tales that once you graduate college/university a great paying job appears magically for you. That's not the reality. I wonder if students realized the job market available to them post-graduation if it would change their choice to pursue university education. I'm from Canada, and typically after highschool you (a) go to university, (B) go to a trade school, or © go into the work force. Students normally choose option a because they think at the end of 4 years, they'll have better job opportunities. If they were shown the stats of post-grad salaries, they might realize that a trade school route is what they'd like to do.

 

Honestly, if I had known that after my UG that I wouldn't be able to get any different work than I could have after highschool, I would have gone to a trade school (probably policy academy! I would cure criminals with hugs...). I think it's important to education perspective students on their options...and that includes showing them what they'll have to look forward to after graduation! 

 

On the other hand, I feel like it's reinforcing a horrible culture within our education system. Higher education is a means to an end for most people. People pay to get their degree, not to learn. Too much emphasis is placed on completing this course, to get this degree, to get that job...instead of looking at education as a process, and valued for it's learning. 

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Disturbing is hardly the word I'd use for this, since this information is (more generally) already available from alternate sources.  This bill - at first blush - would seek to at least put the "State Stamp" on wage information.  More knowledge is hardly ever a bad thing.

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Disturbing is hardly the word I'd use for this, since this information is (more generally) already available from alternate sources.  This bill - at first blush - would seek to at least put the "State Stamp" on wage information.  More knowledge is hardly ever a bad thing.

 

I don't know about that generalisation.

 

Knowledge is good, yes, but the way they seek to present it in this case, however, is a bad thing. I mean Dal has a point in that it can be used practically and realistically but the Democratic co-sponsor of the bill already stated that it's not about a neutral gathering of and compilation of information but an "introduction of market forces."

 

Commodifying all of higher education in such a cynical way is bound to have terrible consequences for funding allocations, etc. I mean I'm under no illusion that many already see it as such but if it's being introduced into law and shoved down people's throats...

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I think it's important for students to know that a Bachelor's degree (or even a PhD for that matter) isn't a magical ticket to the happy adult land of having a job etc. This could be effectively done in high school "Career Planning" courses (in my home province, "Career and Personal Planning" is a required course to graduate high school) as well as in university itself (my department hosted annual "careers in Physics" evenings where they told students what career options they could aim for and what is the average salary range etc.)

 

However, it sounds like while this proposed bill has good intentions, it's not going to actually work out and it will just be something the government can point to and say, "Look! We care about college students! Yay us!". Maybe I'm just cynical though! My reasoning for this is that generalizing statistics for an entire school isn't going to provide very useful information. Knowing that the average School X grad makes $40,000/year upon graduation isn't very helpful. Neither is knowing that 90% of School X grads get a job within a year. The student population is so diverse and there are so many different ways to get a job (or not get a job) that I really don't think most people will fall into the "average" bin. Think of it like a really hard test where a small number of people got 90% and everyone else scored 30%. The average might be something like 60% or 70%, but the truth is that most people did not even pass.

 

This is also similar to an article published last year (Wall Street Journal maybe?) where it listed % employment by major. It made news in the Astronomy community because Astronomy majors in college had a 0.0% unemployment rate. That sounds really awesome -- you're going to get a job for sure if you are an astro major! But that kind of statistic is too broad and ultimately useless -- they might have jobs in completely unrelated fields and the ones with jobs in astronomy likely went to grad school afterwards too. Not to mention other problems like the small number of astronomy majors surveyed. 

 

"More knowledge is hardly ever a bad thing" is only true if it's useful and accurate knowledge. More "information" can be harmful if it's incorrect or can be easily misunderstood by people.

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The student population is so diverse and there are so many different ways to get a job (or not get a job) that I really don't think most people will fall into the "average" bin.
 
But that is the definition of "average."  Statistically speaking, 68% of students will fall within one standard deviation of the mean.  So if the average salary is $40K, with a standard deviation of $10K, that means that 68% of graduates made between about $30,000 and $50,000 upon graduation.  95% made between $20,000 and $60,000 upon graduation.  If this information is consistent from year to year taking into account inflation, I think that's helpful information, especially when students are considering loan packages; maybe fewer of them would decide to borrow $100K+ when attending undergrad.
 
Think of it like a really hard test where a small number of people got 90% and everyone else scored 30%. The average might be something like 60% or 70%, but the truth is that most people did not even pass.
 
Well, this is the problem with the arithmetic mean.  First of all, we can also present median salary data, which isn't skewed by high or low outliers.  Second of all, realistically speaking, it's unlikely that if you look at graduates within a certain range of graduating (salary of first job out of college, for example, or salaries only for those who graduated 3 or 5 years ago or less) that there will be enough outliers that will make such a high salary that they significantly skew the results.
 
This is also similar to an article published last year (Wall Street Journal maybe?) where it listed % employment by major. It made news in the Astronomy community because Astronomy majors in college had a 0.0% unemployment rate. That sounds really awesome -- you're going to get a job for sure if you are an astro major! But that kind of statistic is too broad and ultimately useless -- they might have jobs in completely unrelated fields and the ones with jobs in astronomy likely went to grad school afterwards too. Not to mention other problems like the small number of astronomy majors surveyed.
 
It's not completely useless, it's just that it's been presented without qualification and so it's less useful than it could be.
 
I'm a data nerd so clearly I'm biased; more data can be good.  The problem is that generally speaking, people aren't very good at understanding descriptive statistical data and using it to make decisions (or at least in my observation, they're not).  I think it's because people like to see themselves as unique and different and thus often assume that statistical data don't apply to them - sure, everyone else might have made about $30K coming out of college, but *I* am going to make $70K because I'm special and brilliant.
 
So with the example that you gave, part of the problem is smaller sample sizes - there are fewer astronomy majors than English majors, for example.  But even if they do have jobs in seemingly unrelated fields...so what?  What that may mean is that there's a clear value for the kinds of skills astronomy majors possess/learn in college.  I think the problem is that this level of data is so superficial; we don't know WHY astronomy majors (or mathematics majors, who also have very low unemployment rates) have really low unemployment rates because no one has studied it.  We can make assumptions or educated guesses about that.  Mine is that astronomy is pretty heavy in mathematics and analytical skills, and astronomy majors usually have to take significant coursework in physics as well, so they may find themselves able to apply their work in a variety of fields aside from astronomy.  Particularly in a world that values information science and technical and analytical skill, they may find those things in high demand.
 
*
 
I think that this particular information will be kind of pointless, though.  First of all, how is it going to be presented to incoming freshman and/or current college students?  If they're going to have to go to the career center to get it, only a fraction of them will see it (and the most highly motivated ones at that.  I never went to my career center as an undergrad).  Second of all, I don't think it will get people to change majors on any significant level.  There are some majors that have higher salaries simply because those sectors have higher salaries right now, but an English major who wants to go into publishing isn't likely to suddenly decide that he wants to be a civil engineer one day because he saw the salary report.  Maybe some students will avoid some fields with historically high unemployment (like architecture), but for the more traditional liberal arts, non-vocational majors - majors don't lead directly into jobs anyway.  A psychology major could go work in HR and eventually become a business executive; a philosophy major could learn to program and become a software engineer; an art major may go to medical school; a math major may do market research; a physics major may become a science fiction novelist.  And so on.
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I think freshman need to sign that they've read these statistics BEFORE taking out student loans.  At 18 years old, perception of money, bills, degrees, careers, cost of living an adult life, etc. are so different than reality.  Students really need this information before pursuing a $40-200k education.  I think it's a great idea.  Add in a breakdown of a typical monthly student loan payment for a given amount with a comparison of first year working salaries, and it's very valuable information.

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Good points, juilletmercredi, but maybe I didn't write some of my points clearly and I would like to further expand on them (so that if I'm still wrong, please correct me :))

The student population is so diverse and there are so many different ways to get a job (or not get a job) that I really don't think most people will fall into the "average" bin.
 
But that is the definition of "average."  Statistically speaking, 68% of students will fall within one standard deviation of the mean.  So if the average salary is $40K, with a standard deviation of $10K, that means that 68% of graduates made between about $30,000 and $50,000 upon graduation.  95% made between $20,000 and $60,000 upon graduation.  If this information is consistent from year to year taking into account inflation, I think that's helpful information, especially when students are considering loan packages; maybe fewer of them would decide to borrow $100K+ when attending undergrad.
 
Think of it like a really hard test where a small number of people got 90% and everyone else scored 30%. The average might be something like 60% or 70%, but the truth is that most people did not even pass.
 
Well, this is the problem with the arithmetic mean.  First of all, we can also present median salary data, which isn't skewed by high or low outliers.  Second of all, realistically speaking, it's unlikely that if you look at graduates within a certain range of graduating (salary of first job out of college, for example, or salaries only for those who graduated 3 or 5 years ago or less) that there will be enough outliers that will make such a high salary that they significantly skew the results.
 
I guess what I really meant to say is that I don't think the possible values of out-of-college salaries for a particular person are actually normally distributed in the same way as the overall salary distribution. I know that's the usual assumption for large data sets (e.g. a university's entire graduating class) but I think the data might be skewed based on all the different fields and career paths. I'm not sure if this bill plans to break the published salary values into different degrees/majors/fields or if they will do very summarized "BA's make $X, BS make $Y, etc." 
 
I think this is important because in some fields, e.g. engineering, you can get a job at a good firm after graduation and make good a salary. Other fields, many students are going to be wanting to go into grad school. In yet other fields, students go into professional programs after a BA so if the statistic is "Salary earned 3 years after graduation", it might be very low but that number could be very high later. However, if the statistic is "Salary earned 10 years after graduation", the numbers might not actually reflect the degree earned at that particular university -- the person might have gotten a BA/BS there but have gone on for more graduate/professional schooling so their salary might not be necessarily "caused" by their undergrad degree. 
 
So what I mean is that if they published a value like "UBC's BSc graduates earn, on average, $42,000 per year within 3 years from graduation", this is not necessarily going to be true/useful for a particular prospective UBC student. Sure, if you pick a sample of BSc graduates from UBC, their salaries might be normally distributed, if you pick enough graduates to cover a diverse enough population. However, if a student is already decided on, e.g., going to teachers' college after their BSc, then their distribution might be different. Or if they want to be a biology major, or some other specific path in mind, the overall averages/distribution won't reflect the ranges/distribution of salaries actually waiting for them upon graduation. If they published the normally distributed 25th/50th/75th percentiles, that is useful for evaluating the entire graduating class as a whole, but it does not necessarily provide useful information to a particular prospective college student, unless that student literally has no idea what they will end up doing and is going to try anything. 
 
That is, I'm saying the normally distributed salaries published are a combination of all possible career paths with a certain degree, but a prospective student might only be interested in a certain subset of career paths, and this make skew/shift their potential salary distribution to something different than the published values. I'm saying since most students are not going to be completely random in possible career paths, so the published values might not actually be able to provide useful information to that student's potential outcomes. And in addition, if the student does not know this and assumes that the published values are indeed good predictors for their own outcomes, then this more harmful than helpful! I'm not saying the averages are wrong, it's just not that useful.
 
Does that make sense? Or am I making a statistical interpretation mistake?
 

This is also similar to an article published last year (Wall Street Journal maybe?) where it listed % employment by major. It made news in the Astronomy community because Astronomy majors in college had a 0.0% unemployment rate. That sounds really awesome -- you're going to get a job for sure if you are an astro major! But that kind of statistic is too broad and ultimately useless -- they might have jobs in completely unrelated fields and the ones with jobs in astronomy likely went to grad school afterwards too. Not to mention other problems like the small number of astronomy majors surveyed.
 
It's not completely useless, it's just that it's been presented without qualification and so it's less useful than it could be.
 
Fair enough, I guess I was just tired of seeing headlines like "0.0% unemployment for astronomy majors", which is a true fact based on the study but it would be incorrect, in my opinion, to interpret that statistic as "everyone who wants to do astronomy will get a job", which was how a lot of articles were presenting it. You said (paraphrased) "so what if they don't work in their field, it shows that they are able to develop marketable/employable skills". And I agree, that's the correct way to interpret that statistic, in my opinion, but many people I know have said things that seemed to show that they thought if you go to school for astronomy, you are going to be able to get a job as an astronomer without any problems!
 

I'm a data nerd so clearly I'm biased; more data can be good.  The problem is that generally speaking, people aren't very good at understanding descriptive statistical data and using it to make decisions (or at least in my observation, they're not).  I think it's because people like to see themselves as unique and different and thus often assume that statistical data don't apply to them - sure, everyone else might have made about $30K coming out of college, but *I* am going to make $70K because I'm special and brilliant.
 
I think having more data is good only if you have some way to judge the quality of the data (e.g. an errorbar if it's a measurement). When doing an analysis, if you weight data points by their quality properly, even really unreliable data points won't mess up your good data points because they will get a small weight. But if you treat all data points equally, regardless of quality, then you would be making a mistake. Like you said, if you are simply just providing people with more data, they might not necessarily interpret it properly to help them make better decisions.
 
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I think something like this would actually be very useful. Let's be honest, market forces are *already* in the academic arena. I know we all idealize the concept of learning for learning's sake seeing as this a graduate forum, but the truth is, most people go to university a. for the experience and b. to have better job than they could get with a HS degree. And while I truly love my field, a big reason of why I chose it compared to some other areas I love and was considering (like studying art) is exactly because I wanted opportunities and a well paying job after all this studying.

 

I know that it has become the norm for many people to live their entire lives in debt, that doesn't make it acceptable. If as a student you are taking out a 100K plus loan to major in some field where you are unaware that unemployment is high and the typical salary is very low, then you need that information to make a good decision. Those who love a certain area will still study it, but others who are studying it because they don't know what else to do and hoping it will lead magically to a great job may find such information useful. At the very least, neither will feel they have been misled.
 

I don't think more data is ever harmful. I don't at all like the idea that we must protect people from information because the information may be incomplete or not the whole story. And who is exactly that will decide what information is suitable to give to the public? You? the State? Academia? Everyone is biased and has a bone in this.

Challenge is not bad. If a system designed to improve education and lead to better job prospects is going to be upset by publishing some information about jobs and salaries, then either a. the system is already dysfunctional and an upset will do it some good or b. the data is bad and the system is not dysfunctional, but it will lead to the publication of better data and information to defend itself. Win-win I'd say.

 

Most information is incomplete and needs qualifying statements and explanations from experts, but we need to start somewhere and it's still better than going into things with 0 information about a pretty important aspect of college.

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I think something like this would actually be very useful. Let's be honest, market forces are *already* in the academic arena. I know we all idealize the concept of learning for learning's sake seeing as this a graduate forum, but the truth is, most people go to university a. for the experience and b. to have better job than they could get with a HS degree. And while I truly love my field, a big reason of why I chose it compared to some other areas I love and was considering (like studying art) is exactly because I wanted opportunities and a well paying job after all this studying.

 

I know that it has become the norm for many people to live their entire lives in debt, that doesn't make it acceptable. If as a student you are taking out a 100K plus loan to major in some field where you are unaware that unemployment is high and the typical salary is very low, then you need that information to make a good decision. Those who love a certain area will still study it, but others who are studying it because they don't know what else to do and hoping it will lead magically to a great job may find such information useful. At the very least, neither will feel they have been misled.

 

I agree with this -- it's important that people, especially e.g. high school seniors about to decide what to do in college / career, have the right expectations for their goal career. Again, I'm not sure what the US high school career planning curriculum is like, but I had lots of resources about this in Grades 11 and 12. There are career databases that list general careers, a Government of Canada forecast for how much in demand this job would be in the future, expected salary ranges, the skills/education required etc. Usually schools get their students to research a career and do a project on it and/or do exercises that could give a student an idea of what kind of career they would enjoy. 

 

I agree that we are also mostly idealized about the idea of studying for the sake of studying rather than finding a job. Personally, I am in grad school because I want to have a good job doing something I like (e.g. science!) afterwards. I do love my research but I'm not doing this just because I want to contribute to the field or whatever. I am mostly doing this because currently, it seems to be the best path for me to have a decent career doing something I enjoy. 

 

However, I don't think the bill asking for every single college to list their graduates' salary ranges so that a student can use that information to decide between schools is very helpful. I think it is very helpful for a student to see that Job A's general salary is $X/year, Job B is $Y/year etc. and that if one goes to college, they can make $X/year after 4 years of school, or if they go directly in the work force, they could make $Y/year right away, or if they go to a trade school, then it's $Z/year after 1-2 years of school etc. etc. That's all great and I really appreciated having all of that information when I was in high school.

 

But information like University of X BSc grads make $37k/year vs. University of Y BSc grads making $40k/year? I don't think that is particularly helpful. Maybe most of U of Y grads stay in City Y, which has  a higher cost of living. There are just too many unmentioned factors that go into these grand/generalised averages that it would be harmful, in my opinion, to suggest that students should use them to decide on which college to attend.

 

I don't think more data is ever harmful. I don't at all like the idea that we must protect people from information because the information may be incomplete or not the whole story. And who is exactly that will decide what information is suitable to give to the public? You? the State? Academia? Everyone is biased and has a bone in this.

 

I agree that it's really tricky to decide who gets to decide what information is "suitable for public consumption" -- it leads to a dangerous path of information controlling. But since the government is asking for this information to be published, they have a responsibility to make sure that they are publishing accurate/useful information. It would be just as wrong for a government to request misleading information to be published as it is to request false information or to deny publication of information. And I'm not saying that just because some people here think this is a bad idea that it is actually a bad idea. Government is elected by the people and should represent the people, so ideally, someone in the Senate might realise why some people might think this information is misleading (either through their own constituents writing to them or their advising team) and then the Government would debate the pros and cons and make a decision in the interest of the people! (haha maybe too idealistic there). 

 

Challenge is not bad. If a system designed to improve education and lead to better job prospects is going to be upset by publishing some information about jobs and salaries, then either a. the system is already dysfunctional and an upset will do it some good or b. the data is bad and the system is not dysfunctional, but it will lead to the publication of better data and information to defend itself. Win-win I'd say.

 

I am not against this idea because it will "upset the system", I just don't think it's useful information at all. I do think that colleges should have to be more "accountable" in showing potential students the job opportunities / market value of their graduates. 

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I think the more important question is why isn't our economy generating jobs across the board. This IMHO is nothing but an attempt to distract from the failure of our private sector to do anything other than wage a relentless race to the bottom and the complicity of many of our politicians in supporting this trend of capitalism. It's not like there is tremendous growth in the building trades or manufacturing: the housing market is still in the pits and manufacturing has seen substantial decline since the early 1990s. Nothing more than that same old tired trope that the world only needs society to produce STEM graduates and technicians.

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