A new addition to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard shows that students graduating from area universities are earning less than their counterparts across the state and country.
College Scorecard breaks down annual costs, median debt and other statistics for institutions of higher education to help high school students make their college decisions.
Now there is a new metric available: Field of Study Median Earnings.
The new category is based on the median earnings in the first full year after a student completes his or her degree. With the function, prospective students can compare their potential earnings after graduating with the same degree at different institutions.
A person with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Chatham University, for example, could earn $64,900 right out of college with a median debt of $12,500. Meanwhile, the same degree from the University of Pittsburgh fetches a median salary of $58,800. Pitt graduates, however, carry a greater median debt, about $25,000.
The median is the midpoint in a set of numbers. It is different from the average of a sum of numbers.
The data also show that, excluding Carnegie Mellon graduates, first-year salaries of the area’s colleges and universities rank relatively low compared to others in Pennsylvania. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from CMU have the highest median salary of all fields of study at any university in Pennsylvania, and the third-highest in the U.S. They’re earning around $138,900 during their first year out of school. Ranking all of the academic programs listed in the data, CMU is the only area university that appears in the country’s top 100.
The metric comes in the midst of a national student debt crisis, when prospective students are, more than ever before, weighing the cost of college against the potential pay-off. Student debt in the U.S. is estimated around $1.5 trillion, an average of more than $30,000 per graduate.
Angela Morabito, press secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said the new data will provide transparency for students and more accountability for schools.
“The field of study data gives prospective students a more precise look at the outcomes for people who study a specific subject area at a specific school,” Morabito said.
Some of the schools caution against relying only on first-year salary when making college decisions. Mary Besterfield-Sacre, associate dean of Academic Affairs for the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, said there are other important factors to consider, such as attending a private versus public institution, large versus small student bodies, the structure of the curriculum and more.
“Our engineering school is a relatively medium-sized engineering school, but we’re housed in a large public institution,” said Besterfield-Sacre, noting that students at Pitt may have greater access to big-school resources and academic interests outside of engineering.
The Swanson School of Engineering is a well-publicized household name for engineering and is home to the university’s highest-earning graduates. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical, electronics and communications engineering earns a median first-year salary of $68,300. The median debt for these students is $27,000, according to the College Scorecard.
Still, despite the Swanson School’s local prestige, the first-year salaries of the graduates don’t rank among the highest in the state. Even graduates of a similar program — electrical engineering technology — at Point Park University have a higher median salary of $71,500. Median debt for Point Park graduates is not available.
But Besterfield-Sacre said there are other ways to measure the school’s success. The school’s co-op program, for instance, allows students to spend three semesters working full-time at different companies, earning practical experience and making industry connections. The co-op has existed for more than 30 years, and 80% of participants end up getting full-time job offers from companies they work with, she said.
A lot of fields of study won’t pay off in the long run, but “engineering, by and large, isn’t going to be one of those fields,” she said.
Balancing the cost of education with the prestige of the university is not a new dilemma for high school students. Karen Litzinger, a career consultant in Pittsburgh, said it’s only natural for employers to consider the reputation of an applicant’s alma mater when making hiring decisions.
“If it is a big-name college, you may be looked at more,” Litzinger said. “The reality is employers are looking to Carnegie Mellon with computers and engineering, Point Park for arts, Robert Morris for business.”
Litzinger said the reputation of a university is especially considered in specific fields of study, which the Scorecard’s new metric directly addresses.
“Point Park’s dance program is No. 5 in the country,” Litzinger said. “Anyone who can dance is going to know that.”
The Field of Study Median Earnings metric mostly enforces the idea that reputation matters when applying for high-paying jobs. This is clear from CMU’s high ranking.
Kevin Monahan, associate dean for career and professional development at CMU, said this isn’t surprising, as the university provides abundant software, including mock interview and resume-editing programs, to help students seek high-paying jobs. Even more important, though, are the networking opportunities and in-person access to companies that make a difference, he said.
“They can follow up, they can outreach. They can network to get out of that resume pile,” Monahan said.
Monahan said the name recognition offered by CMU is an important factor. He believes the university’s reputation opens more doors for students, allowing them to obtain high-paying jobs right away. CMU is one of the top schools in the nation for computer science, a pioneer in the field, and it attracts the best students in the nation and around the world.
Litzinger said that while university reputation will always carry some weight, it isn’t a hard and fast rule. The most important thing for graduates to have is professional experience, she said, preferably in the form of an internship or two.
In this way, the new metric has some limitations. Some small programs at certain universities are left out, and all of the calculations are based only on students who received federal aid, which accounts for about 13 million students. Also, academics point out, salary in the first year after graduation cannot adequately address the cost-effectiveness of a degree for years to come.
At Seton Hill University in Greensburg, where the highest median salary listed is $36,800 for marketing graduates, Provost Sister Susan Yochum said about 40% of undergraduate students are enrolled in science or health science programs. These programs typically lead to graduate education — as a result, these students aren’t employed the year after graduating. This skews the median, Yochum said.
“These students are making significant salaries when they complete that (graduate) work, and that’s not captured in this scorecard,” Yochum said.
The Department of Education plans to provide more information. Each year going forward, the study will add each field of study’s median salary.
The data were updated Nov. 20. The scorecard also includes information about each institution’s average annual cost, graduation rate, median debt after graduation and more.
Teghan Simonton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Teghan at 724-226-4680, [email protected] or via Twitter .
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